One of the greatest privileges I have had being a Cleveland Metroparks employee is becoming intimately acquainted with many of the reservations. Through leading hikes, attending educational in-services, special projects or spending personal time, each reservation has revealed its own stand-alone personality. Each reservation offers a hallmark of uniqueness determined by the river that cuts through it; the species of plants, trees, mammals and birds found there; or the striking topography and historic features that remain, pointing to certain eras of human history.
In several of my wanderings through the Emerald Necklace, I noticed a species of tree in many of the reservations that seemed out of place. Curiously, I kept spotting the same species in many reservations. I recognized it as a deciduous conifer, but couldn’t put my finger on what specific species it was, and why and how it got here. I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Here is the back story and how these trees came to be planted in Cleveland Metroparks...
Let’s first establish what kind of tree I was seeing. It was a dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. It is not indigenous to the United States or at least not for the last 35 million years. In fact, this tree was thought to have been extinct worldwide until it was discovered in 1943. This species was found in a remote, isolated valley in China. The tree was incorrectly identified at first, but was soon recognized as the species that was only known in fossil form until then. Chinese scientists eventually contacted worldwide authority on Asian plants, Dr. Elmer Drew Merrill, Director of Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, to communicate their findings and eventually seek support for research.
Dawn redwood displaying its deciduous needles
Specimens were sent to Harvard University in 1946 and 1947 where Dr. Merrill began a close scientific relationship with W.C. Cheng and Dr. Hu. Dr. Elmer Merrill sent funds for an expedition to collect seeds of the Metasequoia, which were sent back to Harvard University in January of 1948.
But here is where the story gets more interesting! Dr. Hu of China contacted Dr. Ralph Works Chaney, the director of the Department of Paleontology at the University of California – Berkeley. The discovery immediately caught Dr. Chaney’s attention as a phenomenal find for the paleobotany and botany world. He spoke with Dr. Merrill, and Dr. Chaney soon found himself on an expedition in February of 1948 to the Metasequoia Valley, being the first western scientist to see the living dawn redwoods.
Chaney brought back approximately 70 seeds to California and began to propagate these living fossils. It just so happened that a friend of Dr. Chaney, Joseph Hostetler, was a former board member of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District. Through their connection, the park system received between 70 and 100 seedlings in the spring of 1953, which were planted at selected sites throughout the park system. This is documented in the Park Board Report of 1952 and 1953.
It is important to note that after Chaney’s visit to China, the Chinese government (People’s Republic of China) closed any further collection of the Metasequoia seeds to foreigners in 1949. It wasn’t until some 30 years later in 1983, that outside scientists were permitted to return to the Metasequoia Valley.
It seems very clear that from the initial trees received in 1952 and 53, the dawn redwoods took to the soils of Northeast Ohio very well. In the Park Board Report of 1966-67 it was written that the park had the intentions of planting 600 dawn redwoods, but for some unknown reason, they were temporarily lined out.
Rick Tyler, retired Senior Natural Resource Manager of Cleveland Metroparks, worked for the first Forestry Manager of Cleveland Metroparks, John Gerlach. Rick remembers transplanting dawn redwoods throughout the park system in the seventies. He states,“ In August of 1974, John Gerlach tasked the new forestry crew with transplanting as many of the dawn redwoods as possible from the nursery (Brecksville) to sites across the Cleveland Metroparks. The crew used their used 1964 Vermeer hydraulic tree spade which could handle up to 2 -3 inch diameter trees. The dawn redwoods were transplanted to open locations throughout Brecksville, South Chagrin, North Chagrin, Valley Parkway, Rocky River and Mill Stream Run reservations. The dawn redwoods had grown so well that their size barely allowed effective transplanting. The majority were transplanted in the 1970s, up to the summer of 1984.”
It became very clear after reading other resources that the dawn redwood tree was distributed throughout the nation to different arboretums, botanical gardens, museums and park systems. I have not been able to trace the initial arrival of the dawn redwood in Ohio to the Hostetler/Chaney connection, but it certainly makes you wonder.
I am sure there are pieces of the story I am missing, but for now a portion of the mystery has been solved. Keep an eye out for these amazing trees. There is one near the boat ramp/deck at Hinckley Lake. You can’t miss the one planted in front of Brecksville Nature Center. Drive over to Meadows Picnic Area in Brecksville or hike in the old arboretum in South Chagrin. Where have you seen them?
Dawn redwoods in South Chagrin Reservation
Dawn redwoods in Brecksville Reservation - Meadows Picnic Area