Gold-needled Dawn Redwood

Conifers with gold foliage can be too much of a bright thing: Their often-rigid habit combines with their vivid, usually-evergreen foliage to ensure a year-round prominence that succeeds only if you've provided the center-stage spot they crave. Gold-leaved dawn redwood, by contrast, brings grace, subtlety, seasonal variety, and unexpected flexibility to its performance. No wonder it's essential.


Metasequoia glyptostroboides Ogon 092918 915


Yes, the foliage is gold, and stunningly so.


Metasequoia glyptostroboides Ogon 092918 closer


Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Ogon' also brings intellectual content, not just vivid visuals. The close-up below shows the tree's needles in orderly ranks on either side of short branches. 


Metasequoia glyptostroboides Ogon 100418 finger branchlets leaves 915


Along with larches and bald cypresses, dawn redwoods are the eccentrics among conifers in that they are deciduous, not evergreen. In the fall, though, the trees don't just shed those needles; they also release the little branches the needles are attached too. In other words, the trees shed both leaves and branches in the fall; deciduous broadleaves—maples, beeches, oaks, say—shed just their leaves.


And yet the majority of a dawn redwood's woody growth—the trunk and its limbs—remains year after year, increasing in dimension and bulk to create the tree's monumental scale in maturity. There are, thus, two classes of woody growth: the little branches (known, duh, as branchlets) that are shed each fall along with the foliage, and the remaining, permanent woody growth.


In Spring, both kinds of woody growth are formed. See the tiny green knobs at the base of the branchlet, below? They are vegetative buds. What type of woody growth will emerge from them? New deciduous branchlet or new permanent woody? 


Metasequoia glyptostroboides Ogon 100418 vegetative buds beneath this years branchlets 915 


In the shot below, seemingly identical vegetative buds are visible at the base of a woody branch. Will they produce new permanent growth, or new branchlet growth?


Metasequoia glyptostroboides Ogon 100418 vegetative buds at the base of woody stems at the trunk 915


I'll report back in spring. These plentiful vegetative buds make deciduous conifers unusually capable of resprouting even from old wood. (Typical conifers—think firs, pines, and spruces—can't activate dormant vegetative buds that are closer to the trunk than the nearest thriving leafy growth.) Deciduous conifers, then, can be pruned more severely than any other evergreen conifers than the big exceptions, yews and cunninghamias. This flexibility expands and deepends dawn redwood's capacity for year-round interest in gardens and situations from the most compact to the most expansive.




Here's how to grow this unusual, hardworking conifer:


Latin Name

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Ogon'; also known as 'Gold Rush' and 'Goldrush'. The tongue-twisting species name derives from resemblance to another deciduous conifer, the Chinese swamp cypress, Glyptostrobus pensilis. This species is hardy from Zone 7 to 11, and is rarely encountered in Western horticulture.

Common Name

Gold-needled dawn redwood. 


Cupressaceae, the Cypress family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous needle conifer.


Zones 5 - 8; can be grown in Zone 4, but can suffer tip dieback.


Strongly pyramidal with a single vertical trunk producing orderly side branches that are gently ascending.

Rate of Growth

Not as fast as the straight species, which can grow three feet a year. Perhaps a foot a year.

Size in ten years

Ultimate size of the straight species of Metasequoia in Western horticulture isn't yet known, because no plants are older than post-WWII. (See "Native habitat," below.) Specimens of one hundred twenty-five feet high are known in the species' native China. Ogon is reported to be smaller at maturity, but youngsters I planted at a client about ten years ago are already thirty feet high. In its first decade, Ogon could reach twenty feet and higher.


Supremely feathery when in foliage; when leafless during the cold months, tidily pyramidal and, when mature, with highly-textured bark and sinuously-buttressed trunk that create a primordial vibe.

Grown for

its surprising, graceful gold foliage: Gold-foliaged conifers can be so sturdy that they create the impression of too-insistent, hard-on-the-eyes rigidity. The feathery foliage of Ogon precludes such a fate.


its distinctive trunk, whose base becomes unusually broad and buttressed as the tree matures. The thickness carries upward with decreasing dimension, giving the trunk an overall shape of a distinct if narrow-based pyramid from which the bases of the side branches seem to be thrust into the trunk like you might if jabbing ostrich feathers into a cone of styrofoam. Trunkal buttressing continues upward through much of the height of the trunk, but often in swirling and upwardly-diagonal directions that create yet another eye-catching feature to savor year-round. 


its quick growth: Metasequoia glyptostroboides itself can grow several feet a year; Ogon seems slower but not by much. This is a tree that can provide gratifyingly fast return.


its appreciation of soil moisture: Although not as water-happy as bald cypress (which can thrive where soil is permanently saturated or, even, when the soil surface is beneath several feet of water), dawn redwood is also comfortable in soil that is damp as well as heavy. Both conditions can reduce available soil oxygen but, apparently, the tree can thrive regardless. My unproven understanding is that, while bald cypress enjoys growing directly in the muck and innundation of flood plains, dawn redwoods prefer to grow nearby, with their roots in the sub-surface water but their trunks fully on dry ground.


its wind tolerance: Wilder weather is ever-more in our present, not just our future. Like bald cypresses, dawn redwoods are unusually wind-firm, and can be responsibly planted near buildings they will soon tower over.


its lack of appeal to browsers. While free-range dawn redwoods don't typically retain foliage that is low enough to be deer-accessible, if your choice is to form the trees into a hedge or topiary, full-length foliage is important. No problem!

Flowering season

Early spring, before or as the new foliage is emerging. The greenish-tan male flowers are in pendulous racemes up to a foot long, and can festoon the tree somewhat like Spanish moss. (Why have I never noticed these? This coming spring I'll make a concerted effort to witness, photograph, and post about them.) Female flowers are cone-like, and an inch or so across. They mature to the cones themselves—which, as far as cones go, aren't showy.

Color combinations

Ogon's lively gold foliage combines with its feathery texture—which, somehow, tones down the gold—such that the tree goes with anything.

Partner plants

The texture and colorful of Ogon's foliage, its cultural preferences, the habit and scale of the tree, and whether or not you choose to allow the tree to grow free-range or to train it as a hedge or topiary, all guide choices in companion plants.


As is typical with brightly-foliaged plants, avoid planting others with same-color brightness nearby, lest one or the other appear pale or dingy in comparison. Ogon works best with companion plants with dark or at least neutrally-green foliage. Variegated foliage can work well, too, regardless that yellow is one of its components.


If your ground is sufficiently moist throughout the growing season, Petasites japonicus would provide the ultimate in contrasting underplanting for directly beneath the Metasequoia canopy. The singular trunk is worth engaging with right to the ground, though, so it would be good if Petasites were to one side, not surrounding the entire trunk. Another solution is to have a grove of Metasquoia, with petasites encircling only the one that enjoys the moistest location.


If you're blessed with a shallow sunny pond nearby to the south and west of your Metasequoia, you could give it over to sunloving Nelumbowhich would achieve the same contrast but preserve the to-the-ground view of the dawn redwood's extraordinary flaring, buttressed lower trunk. A different but equally striking contrast in a nearby sunny pond would be achieved by any form of TyphaUnlike Taxodium, Metasequoia doesn't develop knees on the wetter side of its trunks, so at least there's no worry about obscuring them with too-tall companions.


The tree's complex, sui generis trunk is too interesting in all of its details, bottom to top, to be obscured by companion plants that are self-clinging or twining. Metasequoia, then, is the rare deciduous tree for whom evergreen trunk climbers would be a mistake. But ornamentals that can scramble and swag up through only the tree's branches, especially their outer portion, could be a coup. What about Matelea obliqua? It is one of eastern North America's most unaccountably unavailable and, hence, under-used glories.


If they are far enough away such that they don't obscure the base of the trunk, broadleaved evergreens would provide dramatic contrast year-round. In the warm months, they would backdrop the tree's stunning feathery gold foliage; in the cold ones, they do the same for the tree's startling trunk and its weird "stuck-in" limbs. Choices that would enjoy the tree's gentle shade include Aucuba, Buxus, Daphniphyllum, Mahonia, Pieris, and Rhododendron. If you can provide an in-ground barrier to keep it in check, a colony of Indocalamus tessellatus would be sensational. On the largest scale, could a solo Ogon star at the front of a grove of Magnolia grandiflora planted to its north and east? Plant the magnolias no closer than forty feet from the Metasquoia trunk, so that each tree has the best chance of maintaining  


Because the winter interest of Metasequoia is so strong, planting even a cultivar, such as Ogon, that is shimmering and bright in the warm months can be more worthwhile for its leafless contribution to the cold-weather scene. Think of its warm-season thrill as "just" the cheap carry-over between its more substantial and, even, sophisticated performance each winter. Just as warm-weather aquatic ornamentals that are sun-loving would claim the tree's south and west side, if such open-water plantings aren't an option, you could do sun-loving winter-interest ornamentals that are comfortable in terrestrial habitat: cultivars of Cornus alba, sericea and sanquinea, say, or a coppice of Salix alba 'Cardinalis'.


If a hedge is your choice, a low evergreen groundcover would show off the dramatic parade of its ramrod-vertical trunks all winter. Avoid groundcovers that are opportunistic climbers, cush as Hedera or Euonymus, because they would inevitably ascend the very trunks that are so worth highlighting in their leafless winter reveal. Pachysandra terminalis or Vinca minor are likely to be the most ready, successful options. If, though, this winter combination isn't a priority, then your hedge's focus could be on partners for warm-weather excitement. Is the hedge at the south or west side of a garden? Then a "fore-hedge" of hosta could revel in the late-day shade of its north or east side from spring until frost.

Where to use it in your garden

Ogon is so brightly colorful that the tree draws attention throughout the growing season. Site where such a powerful focus is warranted, not in an off-center or obscured spot. A grove of Ogon could command your largest meadow. Those with epic acreage could pair the grove with a purple beech; plant it one hundred feet away from the nearest Ogon to be certain that, even after a century, neither will impinge on the other.


Ogon could be a solo focal point at the end of even a compact garden; a quartet could canopy the full-sun garden of a townhouse, casting lacy shade all summer but permitting full sun all winter.


Because dawn redwoods, like bald cypresses, are impervious to even the highest winds, the trees can be sited close to buildings—meaning, say, thirty feet away—regardless that they would in time dwarf them.


Because dawn redwoods tolerate close pruning, they can also be formed into stunningly narrow hedges. See the second "How to handle it" box, below.


Ogon is less tolerant of dry soil than the straight species—which, in any event, would prefer abundant moisture. Provide deep soils that are normal to moisture-retentive, and a large enough root-run so that, as the tree matures, it doesn't exhaust available moisture. See "Where to use it," above.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant almost any time, year-round, that the soil is workable and sufficient water for establishment can be maintained. In any normal soil, Metasequoia is self-sufficient in terms of moisture by its second year. The exception would be when trees are planted very closely to form hedges; see the second "How to handle it" box, below.


When Metasequoia is used as a specimen, formative or maintenance pruning isn't normally needed; let the tree aggrandize on its own for generations to come.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Like other deciduous conifers—the larches (Larix) and the bald cypresses (Taxodium), dawn redwoods are unusually responsive to pruning. (Unlike Taxus and Cunninghamia, both of which could be “pruned” back to a stump with a chainsaw, only to resprout with undaunted joy, a given branch of a typical evergreen needle conifer cannot sprout from dormant vegetative buds that are closer to the trunk than the closest-in evergreen growth.)


This responsiveness means that deciduous conifers can tolerate hard pruning that would leave a pine or spruce a permanent rack of leafless branch stumps. This prowess at resprouting is possibly due to production of new growth throughout the growing season, not just a “one and done” flush in the spring. See “Quirks,” below.


Metasequoia can be therefore be formed into magnificent and surprisingly narrow hedges that can be maintained at an elegant slenderness indefinitely. Plant small stock as close together as you can; every foot is ideal. Small dawn redwoods are usually pot-grown, and even a three-gallon tree could be five or six feet high. It will usually be easier to dig a trench and set trees ball-to-ball in it than to dig individual holes.


Prune at any time during the winter, both to control height as well as width. By starting with such relatively small stock, you're assured of vegetative buds that are extremely close to the trunk. It might be possible, therefore, to grow the hedge of any height while keeping its width to less than a foot. And because the trees remain absolutely firm regardless of hurricane wind or blizzard, such a striking slenderness would not be achieved at the expense of stability.


While such a hedge will be a uniform fluffy mass during the growing season, from hard frost to the return of growth the following spring, it will be a remarkable series of ramrod-straight slender trunks strongly visible within the narrowest thickness formed by the stubby branches.


If you are able to space the dawn redwoods in your hedge as impressively close as recommended, be careful to ensure that sufficient moisture will be available. The temptation for a particularly narrow hedge is to employ it where the planting bed itself is particularly narrow. If that's the case for you, irrigation may be advisable to ensure the vigorous growth that makes such a hedge effective.

Quirks and special cases

Deciduous conifers are even quirkier than simply being deciduous, although that is quirky enough given that conifers are typically evergreen. These trees deciduous nature doesn't refer just to their foliage; the leaves—all deciduous, true—are produced by branchlets that are themselves also deciduous. The tree's leaves are, true to any needle conifer, simple stuctures that are relatively narrow, with a point at the end. They are arrayed on either side of a slender branchlet, creating a feathery structure that, in non-coniferous woody plants would, simply, be a pinnate leaf. There, the supporting rib is part of the leaf, and is termed the petiole. In deciduous conifers, a modified branch—the branchlet—takes the place of a petiole, whereas what would be a leaflet of a pinnate leaf is, for a deciduous conifer, the entire leaf: the needle.  


Each fall, the branchlets are shed, not just the needles they bear. In resuming growth in the spring, then, the permanent branches that were dormant all winter produce not just new woody growth that is also permanent, but also new branchlet growth that is deciduous. It's this deciduous new growth that bears the season's needle foliage.


Production of all forms of new growth—the permanent woody stems, the deciduous branchlets they produce, and the needles the branchlets bear—continues so late into a given growing season that a sudden frost can, so to speak, catch the tree by surprise. So, even though the branchlts are shed readily with the onset of frost, onset of deep cold can be so sudden in Zone 5 that the supportive woody growth can experience frost “burn.” It recovers the following spring, thanks to the tree's unusual ability to sprout from dormant vegetative buds that are closer to the trunk than the burned tips.




Dawn redwood has experienced morphological stasis for the past 65 million years, meaning that the modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides appears identical to fossils of its late Cretaceous ancestors. What, then, to make of the number of dramatically-different forms that are now available? Were they always appearing during those scores of millions of years, but we just haven't found any in fossils? Another explanation is that forms whose variation is in foliage color wouldn't produce fossils that are different than those of the straight species. Yet another, more unsettling, is that circumstances have somehow changed in the last century or so, setting Metasequoia free to flaunt itself in an ever-fuller spectrum: It could be that chemicals related to human civilization are mutagenic.


Other forms of dawn redwood with intriguing foliage include All Bronze, whose foliage turns orange before dropping in the fall; Jack Frost, whose foliage is white and green; Nietschke Cream, whose new foliage is cream but matures to green; Rowena, which white-edge leaves; Silhouette, which is semi-dwarf and with highly-variegated leaves; and Snow Flurry, with white variegated foliage on a compact plant.


Forms whose overall scale and/or habit are out of the ordinary include Bonsai, a dwarf; Miss Grace, which is nearly prostrate unless staked; National, which is conspicuously narrower but full-height; Shaw's Legacy, with unusually fast growth and a strikingly broad and buttressed lower trunk; Sheridan Spire, also upright but narrow. 


There are several dozen cultivars overall and in another decades or two, dozens more could be likely. Whatever the cause, this is the Great Age of Dawn Redwood.


On-line and at specialty nurseries.


By grafting; Ogon isn’t reported as coming true from seed.

Native habitat

Metasequoia glyptostroboides is native to China, and what thought to be extinct until 1941, when it was first discovered growing in the wild near the town of Modaoqi, China by Chinese forester, T. Kan. In 1948, the Arnold Arboretum funded an expedition to collect seeds from Kan's original tree and, soon after, distributed seeds and seedlings to various universities and arboreta worldwide for growth trials. Here is the definitive account. 


Ogon was a spontaneous variant discovered as a seedling at a nursery in Japan. 

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