If you wander up Wall Street to just before it makes a sharp turn to intersect Bridge Street, you can see a dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroloides). It’s located across the street from the windmill. This tree has a most interesting history.
Dawn redwoods were long thought to be extinct, represented only in fossil leaf and cone prints from Japan and Manchuria. Then, in 1943, a Chinese forester named Chan Wang and his assistant collected specimens of living dawn redwoods near the village of Moudau in Szechauan Province in China. However, they mistakenly identified the specimens as glyprostrobus pensilis, or Chinese Swamp Cypress.
In 1945, two Chinese botanists, Chung-Lun Wu and Wan-Chun Cheng, obtained samples from Wang and realized that the samples were not from any known tree. The following year Cheng notified Elmer Drew Merrill, director of The Arnold Arboretum at Harvard of the discovery and then Hsen Hsu Hu, director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing, matched the samples with the existing dawn redwood fossils. Hu then notified Dr. Ralph Chaney, a paleobotanist at the University of California at Berkeley, of the discovery. In December of 1946, The Bulletin of the Geological Society of China published Hu’s paper describing the discovery but the new species still lacked a name.
In 1947, Cheng sent samples of the new species to Merrill which are still extant in the Horticultural Herbarium at Harvard and later in the year he sent seeds as well. The following year Hu sent seeds and other samples to Chaney at Berkeley.
In 1948, Chaney and Milton Silverman, science writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, went to China and brought back seeds and seedlings, distributing them to botanic institutions across North America. It was not until 1961, however, that the new species was officially given the name metasequoia glyptostroloides. The Dawn Redwood is unique among redwood species in that it is deciduous.
According to the late Millie Heath, of Cambria, Chaney brought eight seedlings to UC Berkeley of which three were planted on the campus. She believed that one was given to the late Mrs. Florence Thatcher, a relative of Chaney’s, who planted it near her home on Wall Street in Cambria where it stands today. No corroboration of this story has been found.
Today there are thousands of dawn redwoods growing in America and they are available for purchase from some nurseries. So, while dawn redwoods are not terribly rare anymore, this particular tree appears to have much historic value. The first living tree of this species was discovered in a remote part of China in 1941. The sign in front of the Cambria tree says “…est 1935…” which is clearly impossible unless it implies that this is a seedling brought from China which is estimated to have germinated in 1935. However, its size is consistent with an age of more than 50 years so, even if it did not come directly from Dr. Chaney, it is certainly among the oldest dawn redwoods in America.