In the Shade of Giants

   Metasequoia glyptostoboides  outside McCone Hall, UC Berkeley, 2014

Metasequoia glyptostoboides outside McCone Hall, UC Berkeley, 2014

I never met the late Ralph Chaney, former Professor and Chair of Paleontology at UC Berkeley from 1931-1957, but the two of us shared a very unique experience in that our offices looked out upon some of the first Dawn Redwoods planted in the Western Hemisphere.  The "discovery" of the Metasequoia glyptostoboides is considered one of the great botanical discoveries of the 20th century and the legend is that Chaney discovered the species on a trip to China in 1948 and brought it back and planted it outside his office window.  While Chaney certainly brought back seeds and seedlings, which he helped distribute throughout the world, and he did help solve a paleobotanical mystery, he was but part of a group of people across the world that can lay claim in some part of the tree's discovery. 

In the 1920s, middle tertiary (about 30 million years ago) fossils were discovered in China, Japan, and Korea that complicated phyllotaxic (arrangement of leaves on a stem) understanding of two extant North American trees, the coast redwood (Sequioa sempervirens) and the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum).  In 1941, based on these new finds, the Japanese paleobotantist S. Miki established the fossil genus Metasequoia Miki. In 1944, T. Wang of the Central Forest Bureau of China brought some samples of a unique conifer back from from Sichuan province to W. Cheng at the National Central University in Taiwan. Thinking it was a new species of conifer, Cheng sent an assistant out to collect more samples, which he then sent to Dr. Hu, Director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology at Peking University.  Hu had read Miki's paper on the new fossil metasequoia genus and he quickly realized the new conifer species he was holding was the same plant as the fossil genus recently described.  Cheng and Hu, along with their assistants, had discovered a "living fossil." 

Chaney appears in the picture in 1947 when the Harvard paleobotanist Merrill, Director of the Arnold Museum at Harvard, sent him seeds that he had received from a Chinese expedition.  In 1948, Merrill again sent Chaney seeds and some shoots, as well as distributing seeds across North American botanical institutes.  The shoots convinced Chaney to make his ninth and last trip to China to see for himself and he quickly arranged for the Save-the-Redwoods League to finance a trip to the remote valleys of Sichuan province that had not been deforested.  Chaney described the trip as exceedingly awful, both logistically and for political reasons, but he managed to bring back some seedlings of the the dawn redwood, a few of which he planted on the west side of McCone Hall. The dawn redwood can now be found in about 50 countries.


Miki, S. "On the Change of Flora in Eastern Asia since Tertiary Period (1).: The Clay or Lignite Beds Flora in Japan with Special Reference to the Pinus Trifolia Beds in Central Hondo." Japanese Journal of Botany 11 (1941): 237-303.

Chaney, R W. "The Bearing of the Living Metasequoia on Problems of Tertiary Paleo-Botany." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 34, no. 11 (1948): 503.

Chaney, R W. "As Remarkable as Discovering a Living Dinosaur: Redwoods in China." Natural History Magazine 47 (1948): 440-44.

Hu, H, and W Cheng. "On the New Family Metasequoiacaea and on Metasequoia Glyptostroboides: A Living Species of the Genus Metasequoia Found in Szechuan and Hupeh." Bulletin of the Fan Botanical Insitute, New Series 1 (1948): 153-61.

Merrill, E D. "Metasequoia, Another “Living Fossil”." Arnoldia 8, no. 1 (1948): 1-8.

Silverman, M. "Science Makes a Spectacular Discovery." San Francisco Chronicle, March 25 1948.

Chaney, R W. "A Revision of Fossil Sequoia and Taxodium in Western North America Based on the Recent Discovery of Metasequoia." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 40, no. 3 (1950): 171-263.

Chu, K, and W Cooper. "An Ecological Reconnaissance in the Native Home of Metasequoia Glyptostroboides." Ecology 31, no. 2 (1950): 260-78.

Li, Hui-Lin. "Metasequoia, a Living Fossil." American Scientist  (1964): 93-109.

Metcalf, W, and D M Carneggie. Trees of the Berkeley Campus, University of California.  Berkeley, CA: University of California, Agricultural Extension Service, 1969.

Fulling, E. "Metasequoia—Fossil and Living." The Botanical Review 42, no. 3 (1976): 215-315.

Hu, S "The Metasequoia Flora and Its Phytogeographic Significance." Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 61 (1980): 41-94.

Satoh, K. "Metasequoia Travels the Globe." Arnoldia 58, no. 4 (1999): 59.

Ma, J. "A Worldwide Survey of Cultivated Metasequoia Glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng (Taxodiaceae: Cupressaceae) from 1947 to 2007." Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History 48, no. 2 (2007): 235-53.