n 1941 with the threat of a full-scale Japanese invasion of mainland China, wealthy aristocrats decided to conduct surveying expeditions into the remote heart of the country in hopes of relocating away from danger. At the time, much of interior China was a vast wilderness, inhabited by primitive farmers who had no contact with the outside world. One day while conducting his survey in the Sichuan (at the time, Szechuan) and Hubei (Hupeh) Provinces, a forester by the name of T. Kan chanced upon a tree unlike anything he had ever seen before or was even remotely familiar with.

The tree was gigantic; in height as well as diameter, and Mr. Kan immediately recognized it as something unique. Local villagers referred to the tree as Shui-sa, or water fir, and it was part of a local shrine. 
In 1944, the tree was rediscovered yet again, by a Mr. T. Wang, of the Central Office for Forestry Research. He collected samples of cones and foliage which he brought back to Nanking for identification. Botanists in Nanking were baffled by this mysterious tree, and could only conclude that it was unknown to science.

Meanwhile in 1941, Japanese paleo-botanist Dr. Shigeru Miki was busy identifying fossils of Sequoia (redwood) and Taxodium (baldcypress) from the United States, and noticed a peculiar abnormality with many of them. Instead of having alternating leaves as is typical of both genera, many of the fossils bore leaves that opposed one another. Additionally, the leaves of the mysterious fossils were longer than those of the other genera. This puzzled Dr. Miki, and after extensive examination could only logically conclude that these taxodiads were something other than Sequoia or Taxodium, and belonged to a genus all their own.

He named the new genus Metasequoia; meta being Greek for “like” or “similar to” (genus) Sequoia, and published his findings in an article. The species was believed to be extinct, due to the fact that no fossils younger than 1.5 million years had been found anywhere. How ironic that the very year that Metasequoia was identified as its own genus, living specimens were discovered three thousand miles away!

It was 1946 before metasequoia samples reached a Professor Hu at the Beijing Botanical Institute, who had read Dr. Miki’s 1941 article and concluded to his astonishment, that he was examining metasequoia foliage, and that the tree must still be alive and well, although most likely endangered.

Professor Hu gave the specie name of glyptostroboides, after its resemblance to Glyptostrobus, the Chinese swamp cypress. Ironically, the “glypto” comes from the Greek, “glyptos,” meaning “deeply carved.” This can also reference the unique shape of Metasequoia’s boles, which when left branched to the ground, develop into highly contorted shapes.

Metasequoia caused quite an uproar in the botanical realm when it was discovered not to be extinct, but in fact extant, much like the Coelacanth found to be alive and swimming in the waters off the coast of Africa. How fortunate indeed that this stately specimen was discovered when it was. While more than a thousand were ultimately discovered in Sichuan and Hubei, by the time the area was finally declared a preserve, the number had dwindled to less than one thousand. Villagers used the foliage for cattle fodder, and the wood for bridges and other construction. If not declared protected under the new preserve, by today Metasequoia would indeed most likely be extinct.

It is heartening to note that Metasequoia has become a popular ornamental, and due to preservation efforts such as the Crescent Ridge Dawn Redwoods Preserve, that it will continue to not only thrive outside its original Chinese bastion, but become naturalized and slowly begin to repopulate itself once again, across the entire Northern Hemisphere.



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