Redwoods in Kingston

Dawn redwoods are related to the giant sequoias and redwoods of the American West and the water-loving bald cypresses of the Southern US. A fast-growing tree, when planted in favorable locations they can grow to 170 feet in height with trunks five feet in diameter. (Will Dendis)

Academy Green is situated where Midtown Kingston meets Uptown Kingston. This historic spot, a city park since 1918, is home to a dozen trees of an ancient lineage: Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or dawn redwoods. This species was unknown to modern science until 1941, when 150-million-year-old fossil trees were discovered and described by a Chinese paleobotanist as an ancient variety of conifers. Other fossil trees, found across the Northern Hemisphere and in Australia and thought to have been extinct for two million years, have also been recognized as Metasequoias. In 1944, a forester in a remote area of China discovered a previously unknown “fir” tree that was part of a local shrine. More individuals of this unusual tree were found in remote areas in China in the same decade, and were recognized to be the same species as the fossil trees.

The tree received its modern scientific name in 1946. Only two years later, seeds and seedlings were brought to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, and it quickly became a popular ornamental tree, not only in the US but worldwide. Although its survival as a cultivated tree seems secure, and it is a protected species in China, it is endangered in its last wild locations due to overharvesting of seeds and seedlings.

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How did these trees come to be in Kingston? No doubt because of the popularity of this exotic ancient species in the last half of the 20th century. Members of the Ulster Garden Club report that the dozen dawn redwoods were planted as saplings by local resident and horticulturist Herb Cutler, an honorary member of the Garden Club, in the 1980s. Possibly they were planted to help celebrate the installation of the 19th-century cast-iron fountain at the east end of the Academy Green in 1982.

Dawn redwoods are related to the giant sequoias and redwoods of the American West and the water-loving bald cypresses of the Southern US. A fast-growing tree, when planted in favorable locations they can grow to 170 feet in height with trunks five feet in diameter. They are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8, and can tolerate air pollution and waterlogged soils.

There is an unusual trait of this species: In the winter, when the dawn redwood loses its leaves, don’t think it is dead and start to cut it down! The dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer, like its American cousin the bald cypress and the more distantly related larch (or tamarack). The trunks have fibrous, stringy light-brown bark. In the winter, it looks like a tree drawn by an artistic middle-schooler, with symmetrical bare branches and a pyramidal-shaped top. In the spring, the branches sprout feathery green leaves, which turn reddish-brown in the fall. Small (one-inch) cones start out green, then mature into a brown color.

Although this ambassador from ancient times and exotic locales may be considered “non-native,” it is not an invasive species. These 12 unique trees make a lovely allée in our historic park, changing with the seasons. (One of the Redwoods succumbed and was replaced a few years ago. How long will it take to catch up with its companions?)

Naturalist Lin Fagan serves on the Kingston Tree Commission, a group of citizens appointed by the mayor to monitor the health of the city’s street trees. The group advises home- and business-owners in the care of the streetside trees on their property and authorizes removals and replantings to help Kingston maintain its status as a “Tree City.” For more information, call (845) 334-3955 or email them through the Kingston Planning Department at planning@kingston-ny.gov.

There are 3 comments

  1. gerald berke

    Those dawn redwoods are spectacular. And they do grow well up here as you can see. First time I saw them was in Arlington Va, had to ask the owner what kind of tree it was. Only after that did I notice that we had a whole stand of them right out my front window looking at the Green. Duh.
    Thanks to the city and the Ulster Garden Association that does such a fine job in maintaining the park, the trees, the fountain and the fine job the police have done in keeping the park safe and pleasant at all times for all the visitors… everyone who uses the park, including a good number or SRO apartment residents nearby who appreciate the open green space: nice to have people in the park. And families and kids. Across from the WMCA and the Clinton (used to be Hotel, the movies, and the summer concerts), there are lots of people who benefit from that park and the lovely view it to traffic and visitors on the Kingston Corridor heading for Uptown.

  2. Denice M

    Thank you so much for this wonderful educational article. I have lived in the historic city almost all my life and wondered what kind of trees these were and why were they just planted in that park. Those and some of the mighty Sycamore trees are my favorites around town.
    It’s funny how when I was younger i missed a lot in the beauty that this area has to offer. I appreciate this area that much more and the people that had a vested interest in enhancing the beauty, and to the author of this article .

  3. Irwin Rosenthal

    Great find. Right in the middle of town. It makes me wonder about the American Chestnut that once covered much of the East Coast. Kingston has Chestnut street but no Chestnuts, it seems.

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