What is Metasequoia?

Alan Rankin

The metasequoia is a member of the redwood family of trees native to China. Originally believed extinct, the tree was termed a “living fossil” when live specimens were discovered in the 1940s. Although dwarfed by its American relatives, the metasequoia can achieve heights of 150 feet (45.7 m). Metasequoia are conifers, cone-bearing trees with needle-like leaves. The tree is sometimes called a dawn or Chinese redwood, water larch, or shui shan.

A specimen of the metasequoia was found in the Sichuan province of China in 1944.
A specimen of the metasequoia was found in the Sichuan province of China in 1944.

Japanese botanist Shigeru Miki found in 1941 fossil remains of a previously unknown species of redwood, the famed giant trees found principally on the west coast of North America. It became known as the metasequoia because of its similarity to the sequoia. His resulting report was interesting to students of prehistoric biology, but otherwise attracted little notice at the time. A Chinese botanist named Zhan Wang discovered in 1944 an unusual tree in the province of Sichuan. The Japanese occupation of China and other events of World War II prevented the scientists from comparing data.

The metasequoia is very similar to the sequoia.
The metasequoia is very similar to the sequoia.

The war was over by 1946 and scientists were able to resume their research. Zhan’s colleagues soon realized the “shui shan” tree found in China was identical to the fossil Miki had discovered. The reaction in scientific circles to the discovery of this “living fossil” was similar to the 1938 discovery of the coelacanth fish, another species long believed extinct. Such “Lazarus species” captured the public imagination and focused worldwide attention on the rare tree.

Cuttings of the metasequoia were taken and transplanted around the world, particularly in China, North America and Europe, where it became popular as an ornamental tree. This proved fortunate, because after the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949, vast stands of metasequoia were cut down for timber use by the new regime. The original cuttings were taken from only a few trees, and modern metasequoias have been known to suffer from the effects of inbreeding. The species is listed as critically endangered” by the World Conservation Union.

The metasequoia’s unusual status makes it a fascinating study for botanists, paleontologists and other scientists. The tree had inspired more than 300 scientific papers by 2000. A 1980 regulation protected the tree from further harvesting in China.

The metasequoia is still threatened by human encroachment on its native habitats. Starting in the 1990s, new specimens were exported to locations outside China. The transplantations represented the attempts of botanists and plant hobbyists around the world to prevent the metasequoia from once more vanishing into the past.

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