This stately dawn redwood presides over a lawn at the Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio (Zone 5).
Dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer (that's unusual!) that can get up to 150 ft (45.7 m) tall with a trunk diameter exceeding 8 ft (20.3 m). The overall shape is pyramidal with a single straight bole. The trunk becomes strongly fluted and buttressed at the base and the bark is reddish brown and fibrous, shredding and peeling in long, thin strips. The needle-like leaves are flattened and linear, about 0.5 in (1.3 cm) long and arranged in two opposite ranks. The needles are deciduous and even the smaller branchlets drop off in winter. In autumn, the foliage takes on a rich orange-brown or coppery color. Dawn redwood is closely related to and looks a lot like the baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) of the southeastern U.S. The most conspicuous difference is that dawn redwood has rounded depressions that look like armpits beneath where the branches attach to the trunk.
The dawn redwood's massive fluted trunk is especially attractive in winter after the deciduous needle-like leaves drop.
Dawn redwood has been in cultivation in the west only since 1948 and only a few cultivars have been selected. 'Emerald Feathers' has dense and feathery bright green foliage. 'National' has a very narrow habit and is hardy only to zone 6. It is a clone taken from a seedling growing at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., that was 58 ft (17.7 m) tall, 24 ft (7.3 m) wide, and 23 years old.
Dawn redwood grows naturally only in Sichuan and Hubei provinces in west-central China. Its persistence there is a relic of a former worldwide distribution. The tree grows along rivers and around rice paddies where it is planted for soil stabilization.
Dawn redwood is a very fast-growing tree that can reach 50 ft (15.2 m) in height in just 15 or 20 years.
Light: Full sun. Moisture: Dawn redwood does well in normal, well-drained upland soils and also in wet, soggy soils. Once established, they can even survive in standing water. They do best where their roots can reach water. Trees in upland sites need watering during prolonged droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 9. Dawn redwood is sometimes damaged by early freezes, so it is best not to plant in a depression that collects cold air. Propagation: Dawn redwood is easy to propagate from seed or cuttings. Young specimens are easy to transplant.
Dawn redwood is a fine, stately specimen for large landscapes such as parks or golf courses. They make excellent avenue trees. Fast growing, with a dense, feathery texture, a stand of dawn redwoods creates an effective summertime visual screen and windbreak in just a few years. Fall color is excellent and even the winter silhouette is very attractive with its massive, fluted trunk and strong horizontal branches. Dawn redwoods are at their best along watercourses or ponds and can even tolerate standing water.
Dawn redwood was first described from Pliocene fossils (5 million years old), and only in 1946 did botanists discover that the species was still persisting in a small area of China! It was growing along riverbanks, and Chinese peasants were cultivating it for soil stabilization around their rice paddies. The U.S. National Arboretum organized an expedition to collect seeds in 1948, and these were immediately disseminated to other arboreta. Today dawn redwood is a well-known ornamental in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.
Dawn redwood foliage closely resembles that of baldcypress.
Dawn redwood has been around for 100 million years, and probably was grazed by dinosaurs. It occurred throughout much of the world (including North America) until it went extinct almost everywhere several million years ago. Today there are only 10 genera and 18 species still living in the ancient family Taxodiaceae. Among these are California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), and baldcypress (Taxodium distichum)