Sunday, November 6, 2011

Single White Female Seeking Redwood for Friendship and Nostalgia

I grew up in a somewhat remote part of California, where the tallest trees in the world grow over 300 feet tall and live for thousands of years. They are the Coastal Redwoods, also known as Sequoia Sempervirens in Latin and 加州红杉木 in Chinese (literally "California Red Tall Tree"). They are also called living fossils because they are so ancient. Fossil remnants of their genus have been found around the globe in the same latitude, but until 1944 it was assumed that California was the only place they still grew natively.

My aunt Gladys, who lives in Humboldt county and visits the ancient redwood groves regularly, sent me a brochure she found from the Save-the-the-Redwoods League about Dawn Redwoods, Metasequoia in Latin and 水衫 in Chinese. These are a Northern relative of the Coastal variety whose fossils have been found in various places including Japan, Greenland and parts of the Canadian ice flows. This varietal was thought to have become extinct 20 million years ago, but in 1944, in a secluded valley in the Szechuan province of China, botanists discovered the first living Dawn Redwood. This is a scan from the brochure of one of the redwoods found in Hubei (spelled Hupeh in the caption) province in 1948.

So I was inspired to find to visit this unique discovery in Western China and ended up encountering redwoods in unexpected places along the way.

My first surprise came in the Botanical Garden in Australia. My first week exploring led me to the California section and there was an unmistakable redwood growing in the middle of Melbourne. It is probably not wet enough here for coastal redwoods, instead it is the Giant Sequoia varietal.

During one of my Asian trips I spent a few days in Japan. After an amazing meal at an upscale Japanese restaurant, I realized that their entry way was decorated by a large slab of redwood. My hosts didn't understand my excitement. But there is something quite reassuring about finding rare touches of home in far flung places.

Upon my return to Australia I attempted to find a tour company that might lead me to the Western province mentioned in the brochure since I am not yet so fluent to trust my skills outside a Tier 1 city in China. I stumbled upon a site that advertised exactly what I was looking for, but a few years too late. The tour company had hoped the lure of Redwoods would get California travelers to visit China, but apparently we are far and few between, so the tour is no more.

I then travelled to Beijing for work and while jogging in a well manicured park in the CBD, what should I encounter? Why, a Dawn Redwood, of course! A small specimen, but doing it's best to represent a proud genus.

I could now say I have accomplished my goal of seeing a Dawn Redwood in China. But I'm not quite satisfied. So I showed my brochure to a friend who is from a Western Chinese province and sought his advice. The brochure was all in English, so it took us a bit of searching and creative translation to figure out that 'Mo-tao-chi', supposedly the discovery site in Szechuan province from the brochure, was really 谋道溪 (in pinyin "mou dao xi") which literally translates to "seeking the path to the creek".

This does not result in any clear directions to the place and Google maps is quite confused by the search, but I know I am getting closer and hope to see a much older specimen in my later journeys to China.

During our search we found out that in Nixon's famous visit to China in 1972 he brought seedling redwoods from California. These are now growing in anywhere from 18 to all of the provinces of China depending on which article you read. So now I need to find at least one of those as well.  Because of how rare redwoods are, they are also known as Pandas in the world of Chinese Botany. 

As a return favor it seems that someone brought a Chinese Dawn Redwood to Massachusetts. So if you can't get to China, at least you can see one in the US, it is now over 50 years old and thriving in Mt Auburn Cemetery

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