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scanned plant

Young foliage and immature female cone from an ornamental specimen [C.J. Earle].


A tree in Hubei [Sichuan Institute of Biology] (Raven et al. 1986).

postage stamp

Chinese stamp honoring M. glyptostroboides. Stamp designed by Zeng Xiaolian and issued 1992.03.10.

postage stamp

North Korean postage stamp of a fossil Metasequoia leaf.


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Conservation status

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Hu et Cheng 1948

Common names

Dawn redwood, water fir, water larch (Dallimore et al. 1967), 水杉 shui shan [Chinese] (literally, water fir) (Cheng and Fu 1978).

Taxonomic notes

The sole species in Metasequoia S. Miki 1941, a genus initially described from fossil material (see Remarks).


Monoecious. "A tree up to [45 m] high, with a tapering trunk broadening to the buttressed base; conical when young, developing a broad, rounded crown with age. Bark reddish-brown when young, becoming darker, greyish, fissured, exfoliating in long, narrow strips. Branches ascending. Branchlets glabrous, of two kinds, persistent and deciduous. The persistent bright, reddish-brown when young, shallowly ridged, carrying the deciduous branchlets, numerous vegetative buds and a few leaves. The green deciduous branchlets are up to about [7.5 cm] long, often longer on young trees, usually arranged distichously, more or less horizontal, ribbed with the long decurrent bases of up to 50-60 or more leaves. Buds non-resinous, opposite, or sometimes sub-opposite, usually in pairs at the base of deciduous branchlets but sometimes solitary between the branchlets. They are ovoid or ellipsoid, [2.5-5 mm] long, [1.3-3 mm] wide; scales light reddish- or yellowish-brown, ovate, with a linear keel. They are borne on very short stalks, more or less concealed by the smaller basal scales. Leaves linear, flattened, straight or slightly curved, pectinately arranged, obtusely pointed or shortly mucronate, tapering abruptly towards the articulated junction of the lamina with the decurrent base. They are about [12 mm] long and [1.6 mm] broad on mature trees, but on seedlings and young trees are generally [24-32 mm] and sometimes up to [64 mm] long. The upper surface is bright green, with a narrowly grooved midvein, the under surface bearing obscure lines of stomata, lighter green or slightly glaucous, the midrib slightly raised. In autumn, the leaves turn reddish-brown before they are shed with the deciduous branchlets. A transverse section of a leaf shows a median resin-canal under the single vascular bundle, and two marginal resin canals. Male strobili ovoid, up to [5 mm] long, numerous, decussately arranged on long spikes or panicles. Female strobili sub-globose or short cylindrical, up to [20-25 mm] long, terminal, solitary and pendulous on sparsely leaved lateral branchlets. Scales woody 20-30, in decussate pairs, the upper 3 pairs and the lower 2-3 pairs sterile, the fertile scales each bearing 2-9 usually 5-8 ovules, the outer surface of the scale transversely elliptic or broadly triangular, with a horizontal groove. Seed light brown, usually obovate, [5 mm] long, with 2 broad, thin, paler wings. Cotyledons usually 2." (Dallimore et al. 1967). Diploid: 2n=22.

Distribution and Ecology

China: Primary occurrence near the Sichuan-Hubei border, ca. 30°10'N, 108°45'E, with an outlying occurrence in NW Hunan; at 750-1500 m elevation (Raven et al. 1986, Silba 1986). E Sichuan, SW Hubei, NW Hunan, at 750-1500 m elevation (Silba 1986). Hardy to Zone 5 (cold hardiness limit between -28.8°C and -23.3°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001).

Typically found on shady, moist sites such as ravines and stream banks. The species was discovered by a Chinese forester, Gan Duo, when a small population was found in Modaoqi on the Sichuan-Hubei border. One to three of these trees were later sampled to produce the entire seed source for trees grown outside China before 1991. A more detailed exploration in 1947 found the species to range over an area of about 800 km2. The center of population, supporting a population of about 6,000 large trees, was in the nearby Shuishaba valley in Hubei. Much of this population was logged following the Revolution in 1949. In 1986, an outlying population was found in Hunan (Hendricks 1995). The species is, of course, rare and sensitive to human impacts. It is [as of 1980] protected from cutting, but not from habitat degradation, and very few seedlings were observed in 1980 (Bartholomew et al. 1983).

Big tree

The type specimen, in Modaoqi, was in 1980 measured at 241 cm diameter in the buttressed portion of the trunk, and 167 cm diameter above the buttress. I believe this is the specimen pictured here. Several trees about 50 m tall are found in the Shuishaba valley. An isolated tree formerly grew a few kilometers to the north at Wangjiaying, 220 cm diameter and 50 m tall; this was the largest tree yet recorded, but was killed by a lightning strike in 1951 (Bartholomew et al. 1983). A visit to the Hubei population in 1980 found stumps over 2 m diameter, logged between 1950 and 1980 (Hendricks 1995). Ornamentals are approaching this size rapidly. One tree 36.9 m tall with a dbh of 135 cm is at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia (Robert Van Pelt e-mail 1998.03.18). Another, measured in 2010, is 28 m tall and 167 cm dbh, near New Plymouth, New Zealand (New Zealand Notable Trees).


The oldest confirmed ages are for trees planted in the US in 1948. The size of subfossil remnants in China (above) suggests ages of at least 100 years, and ages of 300 and 450 years have been mentioned based on extrapolations from partial cores (Bartholomew et al. 1983). In the absence of further data, though, such ages must be regarded as fanciful.



At the time of its discovery, it was commonly planted as an ornamental by the local people (Dallimore et al. 1967), and has since become a very popular tree, with several million trees (mostly rooted cuttings) planted in China each year. It is also a popular ornamental in the West. Nearly all trees now growing outside China are from seed stock derived from one to three Chinese trees during 1947 collections. In 1983 it was noted that this Western stock suffers from inbreeding depression, and in 1990-91 extensive collection of seed were made in China, allowing provenance testing to be conducted at several sites in the West, notably the Dawes Arboretum (Hendricks 1995). However, the 1948 trees were evaluated for their timber potential, and results were not promising. Although fluting of the trunk can be minimized by pruning the lower branches, the trees are shade intolerant compared to similar species such as Sequoia, and the wood is brittle (Kuser 1998).



The interested reader is urged to visit the online publication by Dr. Donald R. Hendricks (1995). An older account of the species' discovery follows:

The genus was "described in 1941 by the Japanese palaeobotanist, S. Miki, in a paper on the change of flora in eastern Asia since the Tertiary Period. Miki based his new genus on fossil material found in Lower Pliocene deposits in the clay beds of Central Honshu. He realized that two species formerly assigned to Sequoia were distinct from that genus, having similar cones but with decussately arranged scales and a delicate peduncle with scale leaves at the base, whilst the deciduous foliage shoots were somewhat like those of Taxodium. It became evident that the two Japanese species, Metasequoia disticha and M. japonica, were related to other species in widely separated areas, e.g. M. chinensis, from Manchuria and Sakhalin, and M. heerii in North America. Miki's work excited little interest except amongst palaeobotanists but, when a living species of this fossil genus was discovered in Central China in 1945, it became of world wide importance to botanists, arboriculturists, and foresters.

"In 1941, T. Kan, of the National Central University, [Nanjing], found a peculiar deciduous tree, at the village of [Modaoqi], south-east of [Wanxian], in [Sichuan], where it was named by the natives [shui-shan]. Owing to the season, no material was collected. It was not until 1944 that specimens were collected, at the same locality, by T. Wang of the Central Bureau of Forest Research, [Nanjing]. Wang thought his specimens belonged to the genus Glyptostrobus, but in 1945 they were examined by C. H. Wu (National Central University) who realized that they belonged to a conifer genus previously unknown in the living flora of China. This opinion was confirmed by Prof. Wan-Chun Cheng of the Central University and Dr. H. H. Hu, Director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology, Peiping [Beijing?].

"In 1946, Cheng sent out two expeditions under the leadership of his assistant, Dr. Hsueh, to collect more material and explore the region in search of more trees. Twenty-two additional trees were found and more adequate herbarium specimens were collected. Herbarium specimens were sent to the Arnold Arboretum (Harvard University) whose Director, Prof. E. D. Merrill, was able to obtain funds to finance another expedition to make a fuller investigation of the area and to collect more specimens and viable seeds. This expedition, partly organized by Dr. Hu and led by Dr. Hsueh, was sent out in September, 1946 and spent three months in the vicinity of the previously explored area and in the neighbouring Province of [Hubei]. The expedition found more than 100 large trees growing on slopes, along small streams and near rice paddies. ...

"Seeds were received at the Arnold Arboretum early in January, 1948, and many had germinated before the end of the month. Mainly through the generosity of the Arnold Arboretum in sharing its seeds and seedlings, Metasequoia was soon propagated and distributed in many parts of North America and Europe as well as in eastern Asia" (Dallimore et al. 1967).


Bartholomew, B., D.E. Boufford and S.A. Spongberg. 1983. Metasequoia glyptostroboides -- its present status in central China. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 64:105-128.

Hendricks, Donald R. 1995. Metasequoia: depression, sex, and other useful information. Landscape Plant News 6(2), pagination unknown. Published online at, accessed 1999.04.12.

Kuser, John E. 1998. Metasequoia glyptostroboides: fifty years of growth in North America. Arnoldia 58(4):76-79. Available:, accessed 2010.04.11.

Raven, Peter H., Ray F. Evert and Susan E. Eichhorn. 1986. Biology of Plants, 4th ed. New York: Worth. 774 p.

See also Web Site (highly recommended! Download the "new poster").

Ahuja, M.R. 2009. Genetic constitution and diversity in four narrow endemic redwoods from the family Cupressaceae. Euphytica 165:5-19.

Bartholomew, B. 1981. "Plant Collecting in China;" University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden Quarterly.

Chaney. 1950. Yearbook of the Carnegie Institution of Washington 49:114-116.

Chaney. 1951. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 40(3):171-262.

Chu Kwei-Ling and William S. Cooper. 1950. An ecological reconnaissance in the native home of Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Ecology 31 (2):260-278. Reprinted in Arnoldia, 1998; available:, accessed 2010.04.11.

Farjon 2005.

Florin. 1952. Bot. Notiser 1:29.

Gittlen, W. 1999. Discovered Alive: The Story of the Chinese Redwood. Pierside.

Hu. 1948. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 49(585):201-207.

Hu and Cheng. 1948. Bulletin Fan Memorial Institute of Biology 1 (2):153-161.

Hendricks, Donald R. 1993. Dawn-redwood research. The Dawes Arboretum Newsletter 28(10).

Hsueh Chi-ju. 1985. Reminiscences of collecting the type specimens of Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Arnoldia 45(4).

Kuser, John E. 1982. Metasequoia keeps on growing. Arnoldia 42(3).

Kuser, John E. 1983. Inbreeding depression in Metasequoia. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 64:475-481.

Kuser, John E. 1990. China's living fossil. The World & I Jan/Feb.

Kuser, John E., D.L. Sheely, and D.R. Hendricks. 1997. Genetic variation in two ex situ collections of the rare Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Cupressaceae). Silvae Genetica 46:258-264.

Li, J. 1999. Metasequoia: an overview of its phylogeny, reproductive biology, and ecotypic variation. Arnoldia 59:54-59.

Li Y.Y., Chen X.Y., Zhang X., Wu T.Y., Lu H.P., and Cai Y.W. 2005. Genetic differences between wild and artificial populations of Metasequoia glyptostroboides: implications of species recovery. Conservation Biology 19:224-231.

Merrill, E.D. 1948. Metasequoia, another 'living fossil'. Arnoldia 8(1).

Miki Shigeru. 1941. Japanese Journal of Botany 11:237-303.

Mitchell. 1964. Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 89(11):468-469.

Sand, Susan. 1996. The dawn redwood. American Conifer Society Bulletin 13(1): 2-6.

Last Modified 2013-02-16