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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.