April 2021 Plant Profile: Metasequoia glyptostroboides, aka Hobbit trees

Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk with grooves
Metasequoia glyptostroboides Specimen “A”

The mysterious case of X-478*A and B, a.k.a. “Hobbit trees”, continue to baffle and impress those who are familiar with these two unique Arboretum Dawn Redwoods of compact size and hobbit, sorry…habit. Specimen “A” is located at the NE base of Honeysuckle Hill, just off the Arboretum loop trail and specimen “B” is in the north Pinetum (Conifer Meadow) at the north end of the Pinetum loop trail. Their accession numbers X-478*A and B were designated in 1991 based on their obscure origins. Accession numbers beginning with an “X” are those that have no known source and/or propagule type. We do not know when they were planted, how old they are or from whence they came, which obviously contributes greatly to their aura of mystery…

Why were these two trees given their “Hobbit tree” monikers? I thought the answer was because they look like trees that Hobbits would live in. I was a youngster when I read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” and obviously forgot that Hobbits don’t live in trees. They live in underground abodes known as “smials” or Hobbit-holes. So much for that idea. I am not aware of anyone else specifically answering the question either. Yes, Dawn Redwoods, being “living fossils” dating back 90 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, do lend themselves to an ancient otherworldly appearance. Their fluted trunk boles with exaggerated “armpits” below their scaffold branches do conjure perceptions of what trees might look like in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. And perhaps, as in the case of X-478*A, they may even bear a resemblance to the Ents which are creatures in “The Lord of the Rings” described as giant talking trees. Albeit, X-478*A and B specimens are not giant trees. In fact, they are considered “dwarf” or at least compact, perhaps stunted versions of the type. Although again, I repeat, we don’t know their age or whence they came from, all the more reason to let our imaginations run wild and dream of a fantasy world of hobbits, elves, dwarfs, goblins/orcs when observing our Hobbit trees…

For the readers who prefer reality over fantasy, you may ask the question, “Why are X-478*A and B different in size and habit compared to our other Dawn Redwoods in our collection?” One could speculate that for some reason they no longer have strong apically dominant central leaders (although not case of “B” anymore); or that they both suffer from “wet-feet” (poor drainage) for most of the year; or as in the case of “A” our most compact specimen, it has lots of competition from other plants around it and is mostly in shade. But, to truly determine the “why,” one would need to conduct extensive research experiments surrounding their age, genetic make-up and environment. I’ve already noted that their historic records are of little to no use. Therefore, we could try coring for determining their age; propagating them from hard-wood cuttings to grow on and observe or how about DNA analysis; soil and hydrology tests, exposure studies, even allelopathy …phew! And, after all is said and done, the answers may still prove to be elusive!

Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk with grooves
Metasequoia glyptostroboides Specimen “A”


Metasequoia glyptostroboides with moss covered branches
Metasequoia glyptostroboides Specimen “A”

In the end, personally, I believe in the unknown and therefore, maybe we should leave the answers to our questions about our Hobbit trees well enough alone. I’m happy knowing that some Arboretum lore remains a mystery. However, don’t take my word for it and leave it at viewing the Plant Profile images. I encourage you to visit our Hobbit trees, experience their aura for yourselves and maybe your adventure will take you to a place where your imagination can run wild!

Common Name:
Dawn Redwood

Scientific Name:
Metasequoia glyptostroboides: 2 specimens a.k.a. “Hobbit trees”

Cupressaceae (formerly in Taxodiaceae)

Washington Park Arboretum; X-478*A on map grid 28-3W and X-478*B on map grid 42-5W.

Unknown, but maybe “Middle-earth”

Height and Spread:
X-478*A is 20’ in height, has 45’ spread and is 20” dbh
X-478*B is 50’ in height, has 36’ spread and is 36” dbh

Bloom/Berry time:
Monoecious deciduous conifers forming small male cones in late summer and dispersing their pollen in early spring when female cones begin to develop. I have not observed either male or female cones on any Arboretum collections.

None, other than maintaining tree rings with mulch and pruning out broken branches due to storm damage.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk with grooves
Metasequoia glyptostroboides Specimen “B”


Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk with grooves
Metasequoia glyptostroboides Specimen “B”