PETOSKEY — As a young boy in a small village in Slovenia in the 1930s, Petoskey resident Dr. Gustav Uhlich and his friends looked enviously at four very tall trees.
Their lower branches had frozen when the trees were young, and the trees' tall, smooth trunks were impossible to climb.
The trees were redwoods, and they had been planted near the village by the United Kingdom's Queen Victoria in the late 1800s after she recouped in the village's spa, said Uhlich.
Nearly a century later, in 1968, Uhlich was contemplating building a deck onto his house in Petoskey. Now a gastroenterologist, Uhlich had made the move from Eastern Europe to Michigan. His handyman recommended redwood for decking material. It was expensive, but it lasted.
"I said, 'What the hell is redwood?'" Uhlich said. "Then I woke up to the fact that I had grown up with redwoods in a little village in Slovenia."
Now, though Uhlich has moved to a different house, still on a nearly five-acre property that abuts the first house, the deck still stands, and Uhlich has developed a healthy obsession with redwoods — specifically a species called "dawn redwoods."
Uhlich and fellow Petoskey resident Richard Hoffman, owner of Richard Hoffman Landscaping, hope to reintroduce the dawn redwood, Metasequoia Glyptostroboides, to Northern Michigan. The tree was indigenous here and across North America 25 million years ago.
According to the book, "The Man Who Planted Trees" by Jean Giono, the most recent fossil of the tree was millions of years old.
Scientists thought they were extinct.
But in the 1940s, these trees, then called the Type tree, were found in a valley in south central China, according to the book. And now, the two Petoskey men are spreading the word. Hoffman has a loose goal of planting 300 trees in Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan counties. He already plants one at each of his landscaping jobs, and sees the dawn redwood as a healthy replacement for other Michigan trees prone to disease.
"I see so many trees that are diseased," Hoffman said. "The elms are gone, but trying to make a comeback. The beech and ash are being hurt. So it's nice to have this tree that is indigenous to the area, that was here at one time."
The tree grows quickly — it can shoot up two feet per year — and has soft, bright green needles. The needles turn a bright yellow in the autumn and fall off the tree, like tamaracks.
"I just like the tree," said Hoffman. "They look like giant ferns."
Uhlich keeps a record of where trees he has given as gifts have been planted. He has a map of the Petoskey area with 20 locations marked. He is enamored of the tree's hardiness.
"How can you have a tree with a lifespan of 2,000 years?" he asked. "One, it must have solid roots. And two, it has a good immune system. It can fight off bugs and fungus because of chemicals in its sap."
Both Hoffman and Uhlich said they get differing reactions from people when they suggest they plant a redwood tree. Many people's image of a redwood are the towering trees of the Pacific Northwest. But while these trees also grow very tall — more than 100 feet, with some in China recorded as 160 feet, according to Crescent Ridge Dawn Redwood Preserve in North Carolina — they are different from the Pacific's redwoods, and their deciduous foliage helps them withstand Michigan's harsher winters.
"Most people think they can't grow here," said Hoffman. "But this is something I consider indigenous. We're bringing back something that should be here."