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Rare avenue of trees from China on the brink of producing their first seeds

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 06, 2012

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This is one of the rarest avenues of trees in the country, planted by Oliver Davey's grandfather just a couple of years after the Dawn Redwoods were officially classified as extinct.

Even now, they are on the critically endangered list in their Chinese homeland – but the 33 magnificent specimens which line the entrance to this Devon plant nursery have at last reached the age when they're capable of producing a progeny of their own.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides – to give the Latin name – was once known as the Fossil Tree because the only remains found had lived way back in the Mesozoic era and had turned to stone.

Then, in the middle of the Second World War, a scientist wandering through rural China was surprised to find a peasant feeding living Fossil Tree branches to his pigs…

After the war finished seeds were collected and cuttings were taken from the few Dawn Redwoods remaining and sent around the world – and one nurseryman who managed to get hold of some samples was John Udale.

His son-in-law, Nick Davey – who runs Perrie Hale Forest Nursery, near Honiton with his wife and son Oliver – takes over the story…

"We believe he planted the single avenue of 33 trees in 1960 and what is interesting is that each one is almost identical – although they are in an exposed position they've grown at exactly same rate so they are the same height and shape.

"So they must have been planted as clones," said Mr Davey. "If you take a cutting from a tree, then it's like taking a cell from a human – you are just producing a clone of parent tree – whereas growing from seed will give you all the variations.

"The trees are now 50 years old and almost 60 feet in height, which means they are starting to produce seed – actually, they produce both male and female cones on same tree.

"Nowadays saplings grown from Metasequoia glyptostroboides cuttings are available in garden centres and plant nurseries – but soon we hope to be able to grow some on from the seeds we collect from these trees."

And that is good news for a species as rare as the Dawn Redwood. In China's Lichuan County – which is the home of the Fossil Tree – there is just one main forest consisting of barely 5,000 trees.

Other small stands exist, but so huge is the demand for seeds, there's hardly any natural regeneration happening in the hills of Lichuan.

A plant nursery in Devon could one day be helping to change that, giving the Metasequoia glyptostroboides a more stable future.

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