Sunday, October 22, 2017

Growing a Living Fossil

There is a tree that is currently endangered in the wild, was once thought to be completely extinct, is one of the fasting growing trees known with a maximum height of at least 200 feet, and that can grow in most of the continental United States.  Is this a tree you would like to plant?

This tree is the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides.  This deciduous conifer (which has fine, soft needles that are shed in the winter and regrow in the spring) is an utter joy to plant and grow, and one of our favorite trees.

In the 1940s, a Japanese scientist at Kyoto University described the Dawn Redwood as a fossil from the age of the dinosaurs (the Mesozoic era).  Dr. Miki, the scientist, thought this tree was extinct.  However, the same year Chinese officials in the province of Hubei came across living examples of the tree, growing in a few tiny groves in China.  The fact that these were the same tree was soon realized.  Due to the critically endangered status of the tree, the Harvard University Arboretum funded an expedition in the late 1940s to collect seeds  from the original habitat.  This expedition led to a craze for planting this tree in arboreta and landscapes settings around the world.

The Dawn Redwood is in the same subfamily, Sequoioideae, as Coast Redwoods (like those growing on the American West Coast around San Francisco) and Giant Sequoias (originally from the California Sierra Nevada mountains but now grown worldwide).

We had considered planting the Dawn Redwood for some time (after planting its cousin the Giant Sequoia) but we dithered.  This was a mistake!  The Dawn Redwood is beautiful, the fastest growing tree we have yet seen, and one of our new favorites.

A problem with growing the Dawn Redwood is that it is only available in sapling (less than 24 inch tall) size.  For most people used to planting 6 foot containerized (and therefore unhealthy) tree specimens from big box stores, this can be an adjustment.  However - this is really an opportunity.  The Dawn Redwood needs near constant moisture after planting until it is well established.  This would be almost impossible to provide a 6 foot tall tree - the grower would need to water it twice daily in warm climates!.  However, there is a device for growing sapling trees that doesn't require any effort after set up - called the Groasis Waterboxx from Dew Harvest!

The Waterboxx is a self refilling water battery for plants.  It consists of a 15 liter water reservoir, that has a lotus leaf inspired lid that collects dew, transpiration moisture, and rainwater.  The water is slowly released through a wick to the plant roots below.  See a video of how the Waterboxx works here.

We planted a single Dawn Redwood with the Waterboxx and had the following amount of growth in just 101 days - without any supplemental water after planting.

We plant to leave the Waterboxx around the Dawn Redwood for one more growing season and then reuse the Waterboxx for other trees.  As the Dawn Redwood grows in most of the continental United States, the Waterboxx may only need to be left in place for one growing season in sunnier climates (we are growing in Central Indiana) with faster growth.

A preying mantis decided to spend the day on the growing Dawn Redwood (of its own accord - mantis was not moved for photo).

The Dawn Redwood is a wonderful landscape tree, which will grow from zones 5-8 so long as water is available to its roots (after the Waterboxx is removed).  It is extremely fast growing, with about 2 feet a year expected after the tree is established.  It it intolerant of de-icing salt so should not be planted by roadways or sidewalks that receive salt.  However, the Dawn Redwood does well in standing water and is excellent for planting by creeks or ponds.

The Dawn Redwood is available as saplings from the Arbor Day Foundation here or from here.  If you are truly adventurous, you can try to grow from seeds available here.

The Waterboxx is available in the United States from Dew Harvest, at our website here,  Outside the United States it is available from

If you would like to learn how to grow plants without watering with the Waterboxx, the best resource is the book The Waterboxx Gardener: How to Mimic Nature, Stop Watering, and Start Enjoying Your Garden available here on 

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