Perhaps it is because trees often live many years that it has become a tradition to plant them in memory of loved ones who have passed on.
Some people prefer to plant oak trees because of their reputation for being tall and strong. Others might choose trees that were a favorite variety of the one who has passed. There are probably as many reasons particular trees are chosen as memorials as there are varieties of trees, but my recommendation when someone asks me what kind of tree to plant is always Metasequoia glyptostroboides, commonly known as dawn redwood.
There are seven dawn redwood trees in my yard, all planted by the husband and myself, not necessarily as memorial trees, but mainly because we love them and the story behind their rediscovery. I've written before about my love of these trees and how I planted a few only to have them accidentally mowed over or lost to hungry deer that find them particularly tasty. And then one summer, I asked the husband to come with me to Secrest Arboretum in Wooster to see the dawn redwood grove. It was during the annual fall open house, and it so happened that one of the Ohio State University Extension educators also was at the arboretum that day. I asked him to show us the grove and to tell us the story of the dawn redwood.
After hearing its tale yet again and seeing the tall, stately trees that have been at the arboretum since the early 1950s, we ended up taking home a couple to plant in our yard and have added more since then, including the yellow-leaved variety, Gold Rush.
Dawn redwood is truly a living fossil. Once believed to be extinct, images of the leaves and stems were found preserved in stone at least a million years old. It is believed to have grown in North America more than 15 million years ago based on fossils found throughout the continent. There are many collectors of these fossils and I've seen a few on display at the arboretum and in private collections.
But the real story begins in 1941 during a surveying expedition in a remote area of interior China that was inhabited by primitive farmers with little or no contact with the outside world. Surveyors were working to find safe places for wealthy aristocrats to relocate should Japan launch a full-scale invasion of China. While working with surveyors, a forester named T. Kan discovered a unique tree that was part of a local shrine.
In 1944, the tree was discovered again by T. Wang of the Central Office for Forestry Research. Wang collected samples of the tree and sent them to Nanking for identification. Coincidentally, in 1941 in Japan, a paleo-botanist by the name of Dr. Shigeru Miki identified a fossil that was different from what was known as Sequoia, or redwood, and its relatives, which include bald cypress. Those trees have leaves that alternated on the stems, but the leaves of this fossil were opposite each other. The leaves also were longer than the better known sequoia. He concluded this was some sort of ''false'' redwood, and named the fossil ''meta'' sequoia, which is Greek for ''similar to'' or ''like.''
Wang's samples, held up due to World War II, sat in crates until the war was over. In 1947, Arnold arboretum at Harvard University conducted an expedition to collect their own samples of the tree that was once thought to be extinct. Seeds and cones were sent to arboretums all across the country, including Secrest Arboretum at the Agricultural Research Center in Wooster. It was this grove of trees that the husband and I were wandering in on that warm fall day.
The tree is a fast grower and matures at more than 80 feet. The bark is papery and stringy and turns a lovely cinnamon shade in the fall. This is one of the few conifers that drops its leaves in fall.
Our trees are getting quite tall. The first couple years, we put fencing around the trunks to keep the deer from chewing the bark. After the trees grew stronger and were able to withstand the deer annoyance, the fencing was removed.
The variety Gold Rush, with bright yellow foliage, is more slow growing than its cousin. This variety was found as a seedling in Japan, and later it was brought to Europe where it was propagated for commercial sales.
Both the common variety and Gold Rush are now available for sale at most garden centers.