Join us next week for another Thursday post on our Microbe Biosphere make-along project.
Our family lives in a rather crowded area just outside of a large city. We’re lucky to have lots of green parks and bits of woodland, but as you might imagine, it’s mostly yards and planted gardens around here.
As a result, many of the plants we see around us aren’t native or ‘wild’—they’re ornamentals planted as landscaping. Some nature-lovers might find that rather . . . humdrum, but if you keep your eyes wide open, little surprises do pop up.
Or, big ones.
This is a Dawn Redwood. For a number of years, scientists were quite familiar with this tree, but only as a fossil. So many of these fossils had been found, together with dinosaur bones, in what is now California, that they decided the trees had once grown in large forests with dinosaurs like T. Rex roaming around. All of these tree fossils were quite old, and to the scientists, that could only mean one thing: the Dawn Redwood died out and became extinct long ago, just like the dinosaurs.
Then, in the 1940’s, groups of this tree were found in China, and the tree was declared a “living fossil.” Although this tree managed to survive from the time of the dinosaurs until today, the tree is still endangered; only about 5,000 to 10,000 of these trees grow in the wild.
The Dawn Redwood is a close relative of the Giant Sequoias that famously grow on the West Coast of the United States. Like the Giant Sequoia, the Dawn Redwood is a conifer; they both produce cones, like a pine tree.
However, the Dawn Redwood is a bit different from the vast majority of conifers, because it’s deciduous, which means that its leaves—or more accurately, needles—turn brown and fall off in autumn and winter. They re-grow bright and green in the spring and summer.
The Dawn Redwood produces two kinds of cones. The "female cones" were pictured previously. It also produces male “cones,” that hang in fronds from the tree during winter and early spring. From a distance, these “cones” look like leaves, but during winter, the tree’s needles can only be found on the ground.
Once you’ve spotted a Dawn Redwood, you’ll always recognize it, because it’s so distinct from most other trees. It grows quite tall, and its shape is highly symmetrical. When you stand under its branches, you can easily imagine you are back in the age of the dinosaurs, and that there’s a T. Rex stalking you.
T. Rex? Also not as extinct as you might have thought.
Read more about the Dawn Redwood here. Also, check your library for the book, Discovered Alive: The Story of the Chinese Redwood. There are quite a few Dawn Redwoods planted in California, but another great place to see Dawn Redwoods is New York City. There might even be one in a park near you.