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?
Thinking happy, curious thoughts,