The dawn redwoods of Munnysunk

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Born in 1865 in Chatham, a small farming community located in New York’s Columbia County, Frank Bailey had accumulated a substantial fortune by 1911 when he purchased the old farm on the forty-three acres of land that would eventually become the Bailey Arboretum. Bailey had started his successful career in finance and real estate as a simple copy clerk for the Title Guarantee and Trust Company in New York City. Talented, he quickly rose in the company and his take-over of its mismanaged Brooklyn office was so successful that he eventually became company president and then chairman of the board. His father, William Cady Bailey, had been a respected but not exactly wealthy country doctor, one who was often paid in barter, not cash. His mother, Mary Louise Eastman, was an early graduate of Mount Holyoke College and a schoolteacher. She was a relative of the social activist and abolitionist; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Bailey’s parents' house had even been a station on the Underground Railroad. Having been rejected by several Ivy League schools because of his family’s poor financial situation, Bailey was able to attend Union College on a full scholarship. It was support he would never forget. He later became the school’s treasurer, sat on its board of trustees, and paid back his debt to Union College with generous financial donations.

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With wealth, Frank Bailey became an ardent philanthropist and was a founder and trustee of the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan. But it was in Brooklyn, where he had started on the real path to his financial success, that the attention of a good deal of his generosity, big and small, was centered. As with Union College, that’s quite understandable. Bailey’s first wife had been a granddaughter of a former mayor and his financial and real estate dealings so changed the landscape of that borough, from farms to residential and urban development, that he was celebrated as the “Builder of Brooklyn” in obituaries when he died. Brooklyn had been good to him and he returned the favor. He was a trustee of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (Brooklyn Museum) and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as chairman of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In 1929, Bailey and his wife gave $125,000 (worth $1.6 million today) for the construction of the Bailey Fountain in the Grand Army Plaza in Park Slope.

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When he purchased the country property in Locust Valley near Lattingtown on Long Island’s North Shore, Bailey wasn’t particularly interested in aping the pretentious grand châteaux and faux-English country manors of his wealthy neighbors along the Gold Coast, or those over in Newport. In fact, he ironically renamed the old place Munnysunk (ostensibly a native Indian name). While he did enlarge the original 1820 farmhouse significantly, it remained decidedly simple and understated. Bailey’s real interests lay in horticulture and he bought the place with the specific intent of distinguishing it from these others with an “enormous number and variety of trees.” Bailey’s physician father had been a keen amateur naturalist and botanist—he had studied botany under Amos Eaton, also teacher of the very distinguished botanist John Torrey—and his house was described as a miniature museum full of collections of plants, minerals and shells. The younger Bailey looked back fondly on their childhood excursions around Chatham, while his father did his medical rounds always keeping “a sharp lookout for unusual trees and plants,” as a particular bright spot in an otherwise penurious early life. At Munnysunk, Bailey’s long dormant interest in nature would take root again.*

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Bailey seemed to have been as quick a study in horticulture as he was in finance. He started right in by indiscriminately ordering from the catalogs of any and all nurseries he could find. Like most beginners, he made many mistakes. When another choice lot would arrive, Bailey's wife would joke, "Well, that's Munnysunk." But he gained valuable experience through the keen observation of his plants, and his failures and successes. He learned to acquire stock when it was small, watch it closely for several years, and only place it out permanently when he knew its habit and growth well. One can almost feel his presence, still wandering around Munnysunk, checking on the health and progress of his plants probably in the same manner his father did for his patients on his rounds through Chatham when Bailey tagged along as a boy. In this way, Bailey discovered that many plants then considered tender, would actually grow well on Long Island.

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Bailey's garden flourished and his experience and fame grew to such an extent that even the Arnold Arboretum in Boston or the Bureau of Rare Plants in Washington would send him things others had failed at growing. He maintained correspondences and exchanges with many well-known botanists and horticulturalists throughout the world. His biography expressed it well: “His contribution in this direction has been so important that it may have considerable effect on the practice of horticulture in this country. Tree gardens may someday become as common as flower gardens.” The grounds at Munnysunk were eventually to be planted with over six hundred kinds of trees and shrubs—from all over the world—including such contemporary rarities as dwarf Nikko Firs and Snowbells from Japan, Blue Atlas Cedars from the mountains of North Africa, and pines and mimosas from Korea. And a number of Dawn Redwoods from China.

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It was only in 1941 that the genus Metasequoia was first established from fossils by Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki of Kyoto University, who had separated it out from Sequoia and Taxodium with which it was frequently confused. Well-known from numerous occurrences in the fossil record since the late Cretaceous, Metasequoia seemed to occur no closer to the present than the Miocene Epoch (23-5 million years ago), though. While there had once been quite widespread forests containing these trees, even far into then-milder Arctic regions during the Paleocene and Eocene Epochs, this once-common deciduous conifer was now quite extinct as far as anyone knew.**

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In 1943, however, Zhang Wang (Chan Wang), of the National Bureau of Forest Research, was traveling to the Shennongjia Forestry District when he became ill and stopped at the Wan Xian Agricultural High School to recuperate. Long-Xian Yang (Lung-Hsing Yang), the principal and a classmate of Wang’s from Beijing University, had noted an unusual tree at Moudao, near Lichuan in the mountainous south-west corner of Hubei Province in Central China, and asked Wang for help in identifying it. Wang took specimens back with him and identified the unusual tree as Glyptostrobus pensilis, a then-common deciduous conifer in southern China, also called the Chinese bald cypress or water fir. Later in 1945, Zhong-Lun Wu (Chung-Lun Wu), assistant professor at the National Central University at Chongqing, visited the National Bureau of Forest Research’s herbarium and was given a specimen sheet of Wang’s Moudao collection. He took the sheet back to Wan-Jun Zheng (Wan-Chung Cheng), a professor of dendrology also at the National Central University.***

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Zheng immediately recognized that the Moudao specimen was not Glyptostrobus pensilis at all, but something entirely new. Zheng journeyed to the herbarium to study the other accessions and provisionally called the new discovery Chieniodendron sinense. Duo Gan (Toh Kan), a professor of forestry at the National Central University, also reported to Zheng that he had seen the unusual tree as early as 1941. However, it was winter and he didn’t preserve any of the samples he had taken. Further samples were collected at Moudao and Zheng sent some on to Xian-Su Hu (Hsen-Hsu Hu) at the Fan Memorial Institute in Beijing in 1946. It was Hu who matched these specimens with Miki’s fossil genus, Metasequoia, published in 1941.

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Preliminary reports of the discovery were quickly passed to other botanists and horticulturalists world wide and the news of this living fossil created quite a stir internationally. The first specimen sheet sent out of China went to Professor Elmer D. Merrill at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University in early 1947 and money was rapidly and eagerly sent back for seed collection. In the fall, Zheng dispatched an assistant to collect the seed from the type tree in Moudao and investigate Metasequoia’s natural habitat. A packet of the collection was mailed to the Arnold Arboretum and arrived there in early January 1948. Portions were quickly passed to other institutions in the United States and Europe. More shipments followed. Zheng and Hu also sent seed directly to a number of institutions and collectors in the United States, Europe, and even India, who had requested it from them. The first packet’s arrival at the Arnold Arboretum was widely reported in American newspapers, with great excitement at the discovery of this amazing living fossil. Such was that excitement that by February, paleobotanist Ralph W. Chaney of the University of California at Berkeley was headed to China accompanied by Milton Silverman, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, for a visit to the Wan Xian area. Silverman wrote a series of six articles on the trip and Chaney coined the new common name, Dawn Redwood, for the new species. Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng was duly published in the Bulletin of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology later that same year. Botanists now consider the genus to have once held three additional fossil species as well: M. foxii, M. millerii, and M. occidentallis.

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It was, of course, almost a given that Frank Bailey would be among the very first to receive a share of this ancient treasure from the Arnold Arboretum in 1948. At this very early point little was known precisely about the cultural requirements of the Dawn Redwood and Bailey’s reputation for being able to grow difficult plants was almost unparalled. As it turned out, the living fossil is quite easy in cultivation, fast growing and tolerates a wide range of conditions and climates. An amazingly wide range of climates actually. So wide that it’s hard to understand how it could have almost gone extinct. While native stands of Metasequoia glyptostroboides remain sparse and scattered and it’s critically endangered in the wild in China, there are hundreds of trees from that original collection now growing worldwide and many, many more again past that number are in cultivation since then.

There are still a number of original Dawn Redwoods at the Bailey Arboretum, sprouted from that first collection received from China by the Arnold Arboretum. Over twenty Dawn Redwoods, in all, are planted around the grounds. One of those original trees is quite note-worthy as well. According to the International Metasequoia Society in 2007, that tree is the world champion with a measured girth of over fifteen feet. Considering that these trees have only been in cultivation for a little over sixty years, it will be interesting to see how large and tall they might get as they grow even older. Bailey died in 1953 at the ripe age of eight-eight (his third wife in 1964) and his treasured tree garden at Munnysunk passed to Nassau County as a public arboretum in 1968. While he didn’t live to see his fossil trees reach any great size, they certainly stand as a fitting tribute to his horticultural achievements. Especially that world-record holder.

*Quotes are from Frank Bailey’s autobiography It Can’t Happen Here Again, as told by Frank Bailey to Hannah Geffen, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1944; **Ma, Jinshuang. “The Chronology of the ‘Living Fossil’ Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Taxodiaciae): A Review (1943-2003),” Harvard Papers in Botany, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2003, pp. 9-18 has been used to clarify the confused chronology and often garbled stories surrounding Metasequoia’s discovery; ***Chinese names have been rendered using modern Pinyin but the older Wade-Giles method is noted for clarification.


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