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The Great Trees of Rye Town Park

Up on a hill in Rye Town Park, near a stand of Chinese gingko trees, four unusual trees called metasequoias tower over the others, a surprising species in our local environs. 

In New York City, the Central Park Conservancy boasts that it has three of these giants — trees unusual enough that people take note of their number. But Rye Town Park has six — four on the hill and two others near Forest and Rye Beach avenues.

“I am fascinated to learn the unique story of the metasequoia,” said Diana Page, President of the Friends of Rye Town Park, “and utterly delighted that we have this living treasure right here in Rye Town Park!”

In 1941 a Japanese botanist, Shigeru Miki, discovered fossils that were more than 100 million years old, and he realized they resembled Redwoods. He named his discovery metasequoia, Meta being a Greek word meaning “after,” or more aptly “in the nature of.”

Redwood sequoias, mostly found in California, are by far the largest and tallest trees on the planet. They are also one of the oldest trees on earth and can live for 2,000 to 3,000 years.

After Shigeru’s discovery, the metasequoia was thought to be extinct, because no one had seen one. That was until two years later when another botanist, Zhan Wang, stumbled across an extremely tall conifer growing in a remote part of central China, and he could not identify the tree. He collected leaves and cones and eventually, several years later, experts determined that he had discovered the last, and only, living metasequoia.

After World War II, American and Chinese botanists collaborated to send metasequoia seeds around the world. Planting started in 1950, and those seeds have grown and proliferated to create “living fossils,” plants that have barely changed in millions of years. 

According to the New York Botanical Garden, which also has metasequoias, the “living fossils” help scientists trace the evolution of plants. Four of the Rye Town Park specimens are near the ginkgos, putting the Chinese trees in the park in close proximity. 

Chris Cohan, a Rye landscape architect, oversaw their planting in the late 1990s. At the time they were a mere five feet tall. Cohan had crafted a Master Plan for the Park, and the metasequoias were chosen for their unique history and distinct growth characteristics. A planting plan was developed, with input from the board of The Friends of Rye Town Park, that included native trees and ornamentals to extend seasons of interest in the Park.  

Barrie Hedge is a retired landscape designer who trained at the New York Botanical Garden, where he now works.

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