Homer residents experiment with a tree from Alaska’s prehistoric past

A dawn redwood or metasequoia grows in the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Aaron Bolton, KBBI News)

Could climate change take forests back in time? Kenai Peninsula residents and scientists see evidence that warmer weather is bringing back at least one tree that hasn’t populated Alaska for millions of years.

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Across the street from Homer’s Pratt Museum, there’s a small tree growing on the side of the road. You’d probably miss it if it wasn’t for the wooden placard proclaiming it a “metasequoia.”

“Just for your listeners, right now it looks 11 inches high,” Geoff Cobal said as he stood next to the tree off Bartlett street.

Cobal planted the sapling about three years ago. It’s also known as a dawn redwood and can grow to be 100 feet tall.

“But it looks like it might be 1 inch higher then when I planted it. Well, it looks like it’s about the same height as when I planted it. So, it’s not like doing great,” Cobal said as he laughed.

The metasequoia looks like what it is: a relative of the California redwood. More than 50 million years ago, they were a common sight here and across North America. Then they vanished.

In fact, they were believed extinct. We only knew about them from 150-million-year-old fossils. Then in the 1940s, a small population was discovered in a remote valley in China.

They were planted across the United States, including Alaska, in the decades that followed. Cobal wanted to see if they could hack it in Homer, just like they did millions of years ago.

“Our bluffs were certainly warmer than they are now. Although, this metasequoia is now living here,” Cobal noted.

Are climate conditions becoming more like they were millions of years ago? Cobal wanted to find out and ordered 30 trees. He gave them to friends, but only a few have survived. So Homer isn’t quite like it was when dinosaurs roamed.

But it is moving in that direction. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bestowed Homer with a “warmer plant hardiness” designation. You can see proof of that in Homer ecologist Kyra Wagner’s backyard.

“We have several of those apple trees are now considered to be normal,” Wagner said as she pointed to a few trees from her deck. “Norland, parkland, considered to be completely hardy and fine to be growing in this climate that we have here now – 30 to 50 years ago, that wouldn’t of been the case.”

Several residents living on Kachemak Bay have attempted to grow metasequoias and other tree species, even a pear tree. The idea is that they could one day grow into forests if existing tree species are unable to handle the larger populations of spruce bark beetles and European spruce aphids that will most likely come with warmer temperatures.

“If the spruce are not able to keep it going and our forests are going to be shifting, bringing in plants that we can eat from, that are edible, plants that are beautiful and productive and economically viable here is completely a good attempt to not recolonize, but assisted migration,” Wagner explained. “Get these things up here that may over centuries move up here, but climate change is happening so fast now.”

Ed Berg is a retired botanist and a former research scientist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and he thinks that while the metasequoia isn’t thriving in Homer just yet, it could one day be a reasonable candidate.

“It would have lumber potential, certainly firewood potential. It grows very rapidly,” Berg said. “In planting something like this, we may be at the border shall we say of its temperature range, and that just means selective breeding is needed.”

But don’t expect forests of metasequoias on the Kenai Peninsula any time soon. So says

Hans Rinke, a state forester who manages around 80,000 acres on the peninsula.

“I think in the ornamental setting where people have a yard and want to experiment with some plantings on their own and have some interesting trees in their yard that are not spruce are birch, I think we’ll see more of that,” Rinke said.

There’s uncertainty what climate change will mean for Alaska’s forests. But as temperatures rise it could be, at least in some cases, a deja vu for plants not seen in the modern era.