The Story of the Discovery and Naming of Dawn Redwood
An excellent description of the discovery of Metasequoia glyptostroboides by scientists in the 1940s is in, A Reunion of Trees, by Stephen A. Spongberg, Harvard Univ. Press, 1990. The account of the discovery and subsequent activities has since been updated and corrected by Jinshuang Ma in two publication, Aliso 21(2) :65-75(2002) and Harvard Papers in Botany 8(1):9-18 (2003)
In 1941 Shigeru Miki (1903-1974), a Japanese paleobotanist, established a new genus, Metasequoia, to accommodate Pliocene fossils from deposits about five million years old. The fossils had previously been confused with Taxodium (bald cypress) and Sequoia (redwoods). This publication was essentially unknown to Western scientists until after the World War II.
In 1943, a Chinese forester from the National Bureau of Forest Research (NBFR) in Chongqing (Nanking), Mr. Chan Wang (Zhang Wang, 1910-2000), chanced upon a deciduous, coniferous trees near a village, Moudao (Mo-tao-chi), in Sichuan Province (now administered by Hubei Province), he collected a specimen which he later identified as Glyptostrobus pensilis (Swamp Cypress), a common deciduous conifer in south China. Two years later, in 1945, Chan Wang gave part of his specimen including two cones to a teaching assistant from the National Central University (NCU) in Chongqing. He passed the specimen on to Dr. Wan-Chun Cheng, (Wanjunn Zheng, 1904-1983) a dendrology professor at NCU who immediately realized it was not Glyptostrobus but something new. Later in 1945 W.C. Cheng visited NBFR to examine other parts of the collected specimen. In February 1946, he sent a graduate student to collect additional material from the strange conifer in Moudao. With the new and old specimens Dr. Cheng concluded that the tree was a new genus and possibly a new family.
In mid-April 1946 he sent specimens to Hsen-Hen Hu (Xian-Su Hu, 1894-1968), director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing for his opinion. Dr. Hu, who had received his PhD from Harvard University in 1925 and considered the founder of modern taxonomy in China, alerted Elmer D. Merrill, Director of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, that a large, deciduous conifer which is likely new genus in the Cupressaceae (cypress family) had been discovered near Moudao. A few weeks later, he matched the tree specimens with Metasequoia, the fossil genus published by Miki in 1941. J. Ma (2002) points out that it is surprising that Hu had received a reprint of Miki's 1941 paper since a war was going on between Japan and China at the time. In May, Hu sent news to Ralph W. Chaney, a paleobotanist at the University of California, Berkeley, that a living Metasequoia had been found in China. Chaney's first knowledge of the Miki's 1941 paper came through correspondence with H.H. Hu. Later Hu sent a manuscript to The Bulletin of the Geological Society of China, and to Chaney, reporting on the discovery of the "living fossil"; it was published in December 1946 [Bull. Geol. Soc. China 26:106-107(1946)].
R. W. Chaney published a short report in 1947 that a living tree of Metasequoia had been found alive in China. And both he and E. D. Merrill independently sent money to H. H. Hu to support a seed collection expedition, which was carried out by an assistant of W. C. Cheng in the late summer and fall of 1947. About 2 kg of Metasequoia seeds were collected from different trees both in Moudao and the Shui-sha-pa Valley (now the Metasequoia Valley). In December 1947 W.C. Cheng, now at Nanjing, sent seeds to E. D. Merrill and botanical institutions in China, Europe, India and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Merrill received the seeds in January 1948 and quickly redistributed then to institutions and individuals in the U.S., including R. W. Chaney, and the U.K. Also in January, H. H. Hu sent seeds and other plant material to T. H. Harper, Director of the University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley.
In a letter to H.H. Hu in January 1948, Chaney expressed his desire to come to China to see living trees of Metasequoia glyptostroboides but stated "It sees it unlikely that I can do so for some time" (Meyer, 2005). But funding for such a trip soon came from the Save-the-Redwoods- League. And in February 1948, Chaney and Milton Silverman, science writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, left California and visited the Metasequoia area of China. The 6 week trip was very difficult and the expedition experienced "bad weather, bad food, and political problems." Although the Metasequoia trees they saw were in their winter form, i.e., leafless, they returned with plant sample, seeds and seedlings. Their journey and the story of the "living fossil" produced a great deal of interest and was reported in the national media. Silverman described their trip in a series of articles in the Chronicle. Four of Metasequoia seedlings brought back by Chaney were planted on the campus of the UC, Berkeley campus, where they still thrive, and some went to the University of Oregon in Eugene. There were two expeditions to the Metasequoia Valley in the summer of 1948, one was by the Chinese and the other from the U. S. The latter was the last expeditions to the area from outside China for the next 30 years, for the People's Republic of China, which was established in 1949, did not allow foreigners to visit the region.
In 1948 Professors Hu and Cheng described the new conifer in the Bulletin of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology, n.s. 1(2):154-157.1948 (15 May 1948). The tree was given the name Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng. The generic name, first used by Miki, was derived from the Greek meta, meaning alike or akin, and Sequoia, the generic name of the coast redwood, to which the tree resembles. The specific epithet, glyptostroboides, is a reference to the genus Glyptostrobus, the Chinese swamp cypress with which the tree was initially confused. The popular common name of Dawn Redwood, was a suggestion of Chaney. The use of "dawn" in the name was an attempt to emphasize the tree's early fossil record.