In late June of this year, this new Dawn Redwood was planted at the eastern edge of the Dog Off Leash Area in Laurelhurst Park. We noticed it and named it Willie, after my Momma and because he has this little wiggle near the top…Willie with a Wiggle, Wiggle Willie, something like that. There are several magnificent old Dawn Redwoods already in the park, so we figured he was guaranteed success.
But this has been an unusually hot and dry summer. Since early June, the city has seen about a quarter of an inch of rain, with weeks of temperatures near 100 degrees. This sort of drought is hard on all the plants, but especially those with tiny baby root systems.
During the summer we have kept tabs on Willie. He has gotten browner and more spindly and we have been worried.
But he is a deciduous tree, which means that he is supposed to lose his little needle-leaves in the Fall. Maybe the browning is natural, and not drought related.
Now that the rain seems to have started, I hope he can grow and be as tall and weirdly handsome as his older colleagues.
As I have told you, Laurelhurst Park is my favorite place in Portland. It is 26 acres of grassy slopes, majestic maple trees, picnic areas, a lake, paths for walking and biking, and even places to hang out with dogs.
In our short year here we have seen old trees fall or lose branches, and new ones get planted. We have gotten quite attached to some of them. Auntie Bridgett has a favorite, a young fir tree she calls Oliver. She gives him a “high five” whenever we go past. He recently got his lower branches trimmed, so she has to reach higher for the five!
There is a new tree, a Dawn Redwood we have named Willie because he has a snake-like wiggle near the top. He is still young and we look forward to watching him grow.
And Laurelhurst Park is now getting even better! The wonderful brick steps that lead from the deepest part of the ravine up to Ankeny Street are getting hand rails.
Last January, when I chatted with a fellow working on the plants near the steps, he mentioned that handrails were in the plans, but that I shouldn’t hold my breath. Now they are becoming a reality.
A few weeks ago we noticed holes cut in the edges of the steps. Tuesday, Grandpa Nelson noticed the caution tape as we walked home from the movies. Wednesday, I met some of the men installing the beautiful rails. It is quite a complicated process.
Inside each hole is a steel sleeve, so the rails won’t put stress on the old bricks. Then the rails are set 4 feet into the sleeve with concrete and pea gravel and leveled in all directions. The concrete is smoothed and then painted with sealant so it won’t crack.
When I asked when the rails would be ready to use, the man answered, “Depends how hot it gets. We can’t pour if it’s over 100 degrees.” I will drop by the park later today to see what’s up, so I can show you!
Yesterday I got out for two walks, one in the morning with Grandpa Nelson, and one in the afternoon with Auntie Bridgett. It was cold and wet but not raining, and both walks went through our favorite, Laurelhurst Park.
Grandpa Nelson’s walk was quick. He was still “at work”, at his office downstairs, but he needed to stretch his legs and clear his head. We covered ground, enjoyed the thousands of leaves floating on the lake, and saw dogs running full speed just for the joy of doing it.
My walk with Auntie Bridgett was less hurried. We saw some fine mushrooms.
We talked about how different kinds of trees are changing at different rates. Most of the maples are pretty bare, but other types of trees still have quite a few green leaves.
Looking up, she said, “For example, this one.” We stopped beside a tree we hadn’t really noticed before. It was some sort of conifer (there were small green cones under it) but had clearly changed color and was getting ready to lose its leaves. “This tree isn’t well,” was my assumption. When an evergreen goes yellow, it’s near the end.
We took pictures of the tree and leaves, tucked the location into our memory banks, and continued our walk.
On the other side of the park is a ‘tree map’, showing what sorts of trees are growing where in the park. Once we got oriented, we saw that our mystery tree was listed as a Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as a Dawn Redwood. Dawn Redwoods are deciduous conifers, meaning they have cones like evergreens, but lose their leaves every fall. A rare thing, indeed.
Dawn Redwoods are really special trees for other reasons, too. They were alive 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were around. Scientists have found their fossils in North America, China and Japan. A Japanese paleobotanist (person who studies extinct plants) named Shegeru Miki found fossils in Japan and called it “Metasequoia”, meaning it was sort of a grandmother to all other redwoods. He assumed the tree was extinct.
At about the same time in China, a forester named T. Kan found a living grove of the same kind of trees. Because this all happened in the middle of World War II, it took years before they learned about each other’s finds.
When the seeds and other parts of the plants were sent to botanists at Harvard University, the tree was called a “fossil tree” and a seed gathering expedition went to China. Thousands of seeds were sent to different places around the world, including the Hoyt Arboretum and Laurelhurst Park here in Portland. The next year, the tree in the Arboretum bore cones, the first tree of its kind to bear cones in North America in 60 million years, or so they all thought.
It turns out there were, and still are, Dawn Redwoods growing wild here, in forests, the Gorge, as well as parks. They weren’t extinct, we just hadn’t found any as of 1941. Now we have. It seems there are always new things to discover!
I love what this story tells me about curiosity, problem solving, and serendipity. The same kind of trees grew in China, Japan, and North America, for millions of years. How did the seeds travel so far? Were the continents closer then? What if that scientist hadn’t send those particular seeds to that particular guy?