ELi ON EARTH: Redwoods in East Lansing

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Monday, January 26, 2015, 1:00 am
Aron Sousa

Image: The author's coast redwood. The leaves are very similar to those of the dawn redwood, but there is a key distinction: the leaves of the coast redwood alternate on each side of the stem while the dawn redwood leaves grow exactly opposite each other on the stem.

Most people think of redwoods as trees of the American west coast, but they are here in East Lansing, too. It is true that the world’s tallest trees are the redwoods found on the California and Oregon coasts (Sequoia sempervirens). And the world’s most massive trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are found on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. But you can find redwoods in Michigan, including two “monumental” redwoods in East Lansing.

The Sequoiodeae (the subfamily that distinguishes redwoods from the family of cypress-like trees) reaches back at least to the Jurassic period (150-200 million years ago) and once had a range that spread over much of the northern hemisphere. Those were warmer times, and as the climate cooled, the range of redwoods shrunk to the pockets of the wild trees that exist today.

The redwood best adapted to the current climate of East Lansing is the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and it comes with an interesting backstory. Trees like the dawn redwood have been well known from fossils for many years, but no living specimen had been found by Western horticulturalists until 1941 during a forestry survey in China by T. Kan.

The tree was found in only one valley in China and was known to the locals of the area as the water fir. There were fewer than one thousand trees left at the time Kan located them. The ravages of Second World War put pressure on the local people who used the tree for animal feed and wood as other supplies grew short--endangering the species further. (In many ways this story of this living fossil is similar to that of the Ginko.)

Around 1948, seeds from the grove of remaining Chinese dawn redwoods were sent to Europe and North America. The Beal Garden at MSU has a dawn redwood that may be from that first shipment of seeds. The tree was planted in 1952 and has grown into a large, symmetrical specimen. (If ELI allowed editorializing, it would be easy to say it is a beautiful tree.) There are several more Dawn redwoods on campus including other large specimens near Beaumont Tower and Cowles House.

Here is a photo of an MSU dawn redwood taken yesterday, along with a close up of its bark. Dawn redwoods are deciduous and lose their leaves in the winter, as this one has. The tree has a lightening rod with a conducting cable running down the trunk. (Article continues below photo.)

The dawn redwood is well suited to wet soils and our climate. In fact the growing conditions in East Lansing are likely better suited to the dawn redwood than the drier conditions of the wild population in China. The tree should be planted away from sidewalks, but it tolerates street pollution well and suffers from few if any diseases and pests. They can get to be big (170 feet tall) but not as big as the west coast redwoods, which can reach more than 300 feet in the right conditions.

The coast redwood can be grown indoors in East Lansing (see the picture of the author’s pot-grown redwood, at top), but the trees will not tolerate the cold of our winters. In the foggy coastlands of Northern California, the trees can become huge and live for millennia, but even a warm Michigan winter will do in these trees.

The S. giganteum (the giant redwoods of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) can survive Michigan winters. There is a small giant redwood tree at Beal and, in Manistee, there is also the Michigan Champion tree, a 27-meter tree planted in 1948 as a seedling at the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary. The giganteum tolerates the cold and drier weather of Michigan much better than the coast redwood. Prolonged severe cold can still be a problem, but as the mid-Michigan climate warms from Zone 5 to Zone 6, the giganteum may play a bigger role in the local treescape.

At the other end of the scale, the giganteum can be made into a bonsai tree. Most conifers need a good deal of sun, but in the wild the coast redwoods and the giganteum can live for centuries in full shade waiting for a space to open in the forest canopy above them! That should give the East Lansing gardener plenty of time to get one established in a pot. Below you see one of the author’s attempts at a bonsai giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum). He has killed several of these over the years.


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