Room to Grow: Waltham Field Station Dawn Redwood

Before the Waltham Field Station was transformed into a center for urban sustainability and agriculture by the hard work of its current tenants, it was better known as the UMass Suburban Experiment Station. Starting in the 1940s, it was a home for researchers, farmers, and educators. Usual suspects working at the station included plant and soil lab researchers, commercial farmers, and horticulturalists. However, after chatting with current tenant, Manager of Programs at Grow Native Massachusetts, and self-described “plant geek” Meredith Gallogly, I was excited to learn that the suburban experiment station also hosted Arborists and Tree Wardens. These groups researched plants at the station, but unlike other scientists, they concentrated their studies in the cultivation and observation of trees.


Of course, any scientist needs specimens to study. While other biologists worked with beds of certain crops, including broccoli, corn, and quash, in the station’s farmland, the Waltham arborists were busy planting unusual trees in the corners of the property. Driving past the station, you may not notice them. However, upon closer look, you might start to see the many trees here that are truly something special.


One such tree is the Metasequoia Glyptostroboides, or Dawn Redwood Tree, that has stood tall in the Northwest corner of the field station property for more than 20 years.


According to the Save the Redwoods League, Dawn Redwoods are especially unique, as they are the only Redwood variety that are deciduous, dropping leaves every fall. Over the season, they turn from vibrant green to golden yellow, burnt orange, and sometimes bright red. Even more intriguing, when first identified through North American fossils, scientists assumed the tree had been extinct for nearly 20 million years. However, they were surprised to learn in 1944 that thousands of them were growing in China’s Sichuan region, alive and well! Since then, specimens have been cultivated all over the world, including our very own in Waltham.


Dawn Redwoods like to grow naturally in land close to rivers, so it makes sense that ours feels at home on the station. The land here is part of an alluvial plain, where water deposited sand, silt, and nutrients into an ancient riverbed before drying up. This geographical history makes the soil perfect for growing crops, and, apparently, for growing ancient species of redwood as well. Furthermore, Dawn Redwoods like cold climates, making Massachusetts a perfect setting. It’s a match all around!


Currently at 60’ tall, our Redwood has the potential to reach 160’ tall and 7’ in trunk diameter. Her branches will eventually spread over dormant greenhouses and field station land that is full of potential–reminding us, the tenants, that just like her, we still have plenty of room to grow.


Make sure our Redwood can keep stretching—contact your local and state legislators to show your support for the Waltham Field Station. Additionally, check out Grow Native Massachusetts’ website for more information about the amazing native plants you can grow right at home!

By Anneke Craig, Boston Area Gleaners Intern