An ailing dawn redwood outside the owntown Palo Alto post office, a tree whose species dates from the time of the dinosaurs, may be saved thanks to concerned residents, city staff and a local nonprofit who have rallied to protect it from continuing neglect.
The tree, which is on federal property at 380 Hamilton Ave. at Waverley Street, was planted in 1949 from seeds collected at one of the last remaining dawn redwood groves in China. Residents and others have tried to get the postal service to care for the tree for more than a year with no success. Through a concerted effort, city staff was finally able to repair a broken irrigation system and engage the postal service this year to care for the tree in the future.
The Palo Alto dawn redwood is "a very visible and beloved tree with an interesting history," said Catherine Martineau, executive director of urban forestry nonprofit Canopy.
The dawn redwood, scientific name Metasequoia glyptostroboides, is one of the rarest trees in Palo Alto and, in the wild, in the world. Although the trees once covered much of the northern hemisphere, including in parts of the U.S., the species was not known until 1941 when Japanese paleobiologist Shigeru Miki found fossils dating back to the Mesozoic Era, 252-66 million years ago. A research expedition by Chinese scientists to a remote part of Sichuan province that same year found a large living example in a small village where locals had built a shrine at the base.
After World War II, Chinese scientists connected the fossils to that tree and living trees found in a small grove. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sent an expedition in 1948 to collect seeds. Soon thereafter, fascination with the ancient "living fossil" led to seeds being distributed throughout the world, according to the book "Geobiology and Ecology of Metasequoia."
Palo Alto's now-massive tree was planted from those seeds, according to a 2004 Weekly story. At 88 feet, and with a trunk circumference of 182 inches and a crown spread of 59 feet, the Palo Alto dawn redwood is registered as a California Big Tree by the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The tree is one of just 231 urban-forest trees of any species so designated in the state.
Residents who saw the tree's obvious decline notified the media, the city and even congressional representatives this year.
"It's been an uphill battle with many months of total inadequate responses and lack of action on the part of the Post Office," Martineau said. Several Canopy volunteers and other community members installed a soaker hose and turned the irrigation on at the property to try to sustain the tree.
Palo Alto Urban Forester Walter Passmore said the redwood is in fair to poor condition.
"The top leader and many branch tips have died," he said in an email, noting that the main culprit was a broken irrigation system.
In July, city Landscape Architect Peter Jensen engaged the local postmaster, and with his blessing, repaired the irrigation system, deep watered the tree and recommended how to care for the dawn redwood and other mistreated trees on the post office grounds, Martineau said.
Passmore said city staff also placed mulch over the roots, but the city's role in the tree's survival is limited.
"The post office needs to take the next steps to care for the tree, which they said would happen. The tree is not designated as a heritage tree, but the post office understands the significance of it," he said.
USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz said the post office and the city have been working together to revive the tree since it was first brought to their attention. The post office is also addressing other landscaping issues, such as removal of dead weeds and branches.
Passmore said if regular watering is restored and maintained, the tree may respond with new growth by next spring or possibly sooner.
There were once about 20 Metasequoia species, but all are extinct except for the dawn redwood, which is related to the better-known California redwood and giant sequoia.
In the wild, the dawn redwood is listed as an endangered species, though the trees have become widespread in urban landscaping.
In Palo Alto, however, Passmore thinks they are "very rare." The city has five dawn redwoods on public property, but none are as tall as the one at the post office.
Martineau said Canopy and residents will be keeping an eye on Palo Alto's venerable tree.
"To me, what has happened to this tree in the last few years is a striking example of what a lack of appreciation and understanding of the benefits of trees and of their needs can produce. Years of drought compounded by aggressive water conservation measures, and in this case total neglect, have real consequences on the urban tree canopy," she said.