Skip to Content

What is a Dawn Redwood Tree (Detailed Facts)?

A photo collage of a dawn redwood tree.

Metasequoia Glyptostroboide

There are only 3 living species of redwoods, and each member belongs to its own genus. There is the coast redwood (sequoia sempervirens) which accounts for the tallest and oldest trees on the planet, the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron gigantism) which accounts for the largest trees on the planet, and then there is the dawn redwood. All members belong to the Cupressaceae (cypress) botanical family.

Metasequoia glyptostroboide is the only living species of its genus and is the shortest of the 3 redwood species. Though it is half its average size, it is still an exceptionally tall tree by average standards. But as we know, redwoods are not average trees.

This beautiful tree is native to central China, and locals of those regions refer to the dawn redwood as the “water fir” as they are known for growing in very damp, almost waterlogged conditions.

Unlike other redwoods, the dawn redwood is a deciduous tree, meaning that it sheds its leaves seasonally. It is also an extremely fast-growing tree, capable of shooting up an impressive 24 inches per year.

Spring is here, and it’s the perfect time of year to brush up on your tree identification abilities. We’ve compiled a list of 101 Types of Trees from all over the world, detailing the history and characteristics of many different tree types. So no matter where you come from or what tree you’re curious about, you are likely to find it there!

When was the Dawn Redwood Discovered?

For a long time, the dawn redwood was thought to be a long-time extinct species. That is, until one day, Dr. Shigeru Miki from Kyoto University was studying several leaf fossils from the Mesozoic era. While studying these fossils, he noticed that one of the leaf prints was divergent from the others, and effectively discovered an entirely new plant genus!

Even cooler than that, rumors were spreading of a new redwood species that had yet to be confirmed. Arnold arboretum set out a reward to bring back seeds from this unidentified tree to Harvard University.

Long story short, it was established that this unidentified tree was actually a living fossil, an ancient tree species that was genetically identical to the tree that was thought to only be alive during the cretaceous period.

The dawn redwood was named “metasequoia” which is Latin for “like a sequoia”, as the leaves were nearly so similar that the fossils had been misidentified for centuries.

What does Dawn Redwood Trees Look Like?

Root System

Considering their impressive size, dawn redwood tree roots don’t actually grow all that deep in the soil. Their roots will usually grow within the top 36 inches of soil but will spread way beyond the width of their crown.

The reason for this is that redwood trees only grow in locations that are extremely moist, and the soil is perpetually saturated. Trees do not need to direct their roots toward moisture reserves, so they can remain in the topsoil.

View of dawn redwood tree root system growing into a river


Dawn redwoods are the smallest of the redwood species, though they are still exceptionally large trees compared to normal tree species.

They will grow to be an average of 40 to 45 meters when growing in the wild, with a trunk diameter of 2 meters.

When cultivated, they tend to grow too quickly and too large for small gardens, and will usually obtain heights between 30 and 35 meters when grown from seed or when taken from a tree nursery.

Growth Pattern

Long branches and large trunk of dawn redwood tree growing in a meadow.

A young tree will have more of a pyramidal-shaped crown, whereas a mature tree will have a more rounded crown.

Trunks are very tall and upright, and dawn redwoods are known for having a very distinct armpit underneath each branch which helps with easy identification.

Depending on its growing location, a dawn redwood can experience different growth and tolerance. A tree growing on a mountain slope develops a very broad canopy, seeds productively, and is drought tolerant. A tree growing near a stream bank is a smaller canopy, is more sensitive to drought, and does not seed very readily.


The bark of the dawn redwood is very similar to that of the other redwood species. The bark is a distinct red/brown color and is vertically fissured and very fibrous. The bark will exfoliate away in ribbon-like strips.


Unlike the other redwood species which have evergreen leaves that persist all year long, the dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer. This means that the tree has needle-like leaves that fall seasonally.

Dawn redwood leaves are needle-like and oppositely arranged on a twig. They are a feathery shape and texture and are soft to the touch.

A needle will start out as being a bright fresh green color and will turn a foxy red/brown color before it falls in autumn.

Bright green fresh feathery leaves of the dawn redwood tree in spring time

How do Dawn Redwood Trees Reproduce?


Dawn redwoods are conifers, meaning that they possess cones instead of flowers as reproductive characteristics.

Both seed cones (female characteristics) and pollen cones (male characteristics) are very similar in shape, size, and color.

Cones are produced in the early spring along with long spikes on the ends of branches. They are ovoid in shape, and each cone has between 16 and 28 scales. Scales are arranged in opposite pairs in 4 rows. A cone will become mature 9 months after original pollination.

Cone Types

Dawn redwoods are unique in that within their genus, cone development changes depending on the growing location of a tree.

Cones will only grow in regions that have very hot summers. Cones will be larger when a tree is growing on a mountain slope, whereas cones will be larger on a tree that is growing near stream banks.

Mature cones of the dawn redwood trees with bright orange autumn foliage

What are Some Other Redwood Species?

The Coast Redwood Tree (Sequoia Sempervirens)

The coast redwood is the sole living species of the genus sequoia and is commonly known as the coastal redwood or the California redwood.

This tree species include both the oldest living tree species and the tallest living tree species. The oldest specimen is 3266 years old, and the tallest specimen is 115.5 meters tall.

These trees are unfortunately endangered due to extreme commercial logging in the 18th century, and now they only occur in small corners of coastal Oregon and southwestern California.

The tall coast redwood trees trail crossing with sunset sunlight.

The Giant Redwood Tree (Sequoiadendron Gigantum)

This giant tree is also commonly known as the giant sequoia tree, the Sierra Redwood, and the Wellingtonia tree. They are the absolute most massive tree species on the planet, and they are also some of the oldest known tree species, with the oldest specimen being an estimated 3266 years old.

These trees will only grow in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and are protected by the national parks association.

The etymology of the word sequoia derives from Sequoyah, who was a First Nations polymath who was the first person to actually transcribe the Cherokee language.

Dizzying view looking up at stand of giant redwood trees with tall trunks and high canopies

Where does Dawn Redwood Trees Grow?

Dawn redwoods are native trees to the border region of Hubei and Hunan in central China. Their native habitat is wet sites with high humidity and perpetually moist soil.

Since their discovery in the mid-19th century, they have since been cultivated all over the world as street trees or garden trees. They can grow in hardiness zone 5 through 8.

They can commonly be found growing wild in a redwood forest around wet slopes and mountain river streams, or in moist gullies and valleys as well.

Native stand of dawn redwood trees in  China in autumn with mountains in background

What are the Growing Conditions of Dawn Redwood Trees?


The dawn redwood prefers to have very moist and well-drained soils, though they are able to tolerate temporarily dry soil. They are also able of tolerating acidic, clay, sandy, loamy, and wet soil.

Sun Exposure

Dawn redwoods are sun-loving trees and prefer to have full sun exposure all day.

Water Level

Dawn redwoods are used to growing in regions that have high year-round humidity, and high annual precipitation as well. Trees growing in mountainous regions are drought-tolerant, whereas trees growing in valleys are much less drought-tolerant. They are able to tolerate complete flooding.

Stand of dawn redwood trees growing in flood conditions in autumn

How is Dawn Redwoods Used?


Because they were so newly discovered and don’t have a very large population, dawn redwoods are only used to be appreciated as ornamental trees or as specimen trees.

They are a very popular street tree as they are very fast growing and easy to care for, though they do not make a good shade tree as their leaves fall seasonally.

They’re the best choice for large gardens and parks, as if they are planted in a small garden, they will quickly become too large and unmanageable for a small space. Be wearing of planting a dawn redwood in a small landscape, as they grow upwards of 24 inches per year!

Mature stand of dawn redwood trees growing next to walking lane with walking pedestrians