23 July 2020

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In the grounds of Emmanuel College there can be found a most remarkable tree. Next to the pond in Chapman’s Garden, is a tall, alien–looking conifer with a deeply fissured trunk: its branches bearing soft green needles that turn a beautiful shade of reddish–brown in autumn.

A tall tree in leaf by a pond, with a red brick building in the background.Planted in the late 1940s, it is a majestic representative of the species Metasequoia glyptostroboides, whose common name, the Dawn Redwood, reflects its ancient origins. Once a familiar sight throughout the northern hemisphere, Metasequoias were thought to have become extinct about five million years ago. Then, in 1941, a few living examples were discovered in a remote part of China. Nothing more could be done until after the Second World War, but in the autumn of 1947 a large quantity of seeds was collected from the trees. Most were sent to the USA, but a small cache came into the hands of Dr Ronald Silow, a botanist who had worked in Cambridge before going out to China in 1947. He forwarded the seeds to Frederick Brooks, a graduate & Fellow of Emmanuel College, and Professor of Botany at Cambridge University.

Professor Brooks took the seeds to the Cambridge Botanic Garden early in March 1948. They ‘germinated freely’ and in January 1949, the Botanic Garden planted out three seedlings in their grounds, one of which survives. This tree is said to have been the first specimen of Metasequoia glyptostroboides planted on British soil, and as such, it features in several books on famous trees. It could be argued, though, that Emmanuel’s two Dawn Redwood trees are almost equally venerable, for they too were grown from Professor Brooks’ batch of seeds, as was the Metasequoia in the Fellows’ Garden at Clare College. (Above: Dawn Redwood tree in Chapman's Garden)

The bottom of a large tree in leaf, in full sun.Emma’s trees were probably planted out in March 1949; not by Professor Brooks himself, but by his colleague James Line, who was also an Emmanuel Fellow & a botanist. The College Magazine issued in the summer of 1950 informed members that ‘two specimens of the newly discovered Chinese conifer Metasequoia glyptostroboides, which were obtained by Professor Brooks, are now rapidly shooting up by the pond in Chapman’s Garden’. In the autumn of 1953, the smaller of the two trees was moved to a new site in the Paddock, near the Squash Court. (R: Dawn Redwood close–up)

A black & white photograph of men in suits, in the College CloistersIn its natural habitat, the Dawn Redwood is a critically endangered species, so we are privileged to be able to view two fine specimens in the college gardens. Professor Brooks did not live to see his trees grow to maturity, as he died in 1952, but his arboreal legacy will surely enthrall many future generations of Emmanuelians.

(L: Emma Fellows, taken in Front Court in 1941, Professor Frederick Brooks far right & James Line far left)

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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