The word doppelganger comes from the German, doppel (meaning double) and ganger (meaning walker or goer) Doppelgangers are look a likes; often leading to confusion when you aren’t sure if the person standing in front of you is the real deal, or perhaps an imposter. Doppelgangers are everywhere. Just last week at my daughter’s lacrosse game, I noticed a dad on the sidelines who was a carbon copy of our New England sales rep, Jim Davenport. So much alike in fact that I had to walk over to be sure it was not him. A hello to the unnamed stranger quickly solved the mystery. Doppelganger Jim, returned the hello but with a look of confusion that could only mean I had the wrong person. I snapped a covert pic for the rest of the team to confirm my thoughts. Sure enough, Jim has a twin out there in the world and my sales team now thinks I’m a weirdo stalker!
My dad passed away suddenly when I was 24 years old. There was never a proper goodbye and so my last memories have to serve me for the rest of my days. My dad has been gone for 20 years now and I still think I see him from time to time. Each time, my heart stops and I catch my breath. Could it be? But sadly no, Ron Roemmelt’s doppelgangers are just my mind playing tricks on me. These remarkably similar men are merely my mind’s attempt to show me what I wish to see, rather than what (or in this case, who) is really there.
Recently, I was asked by a customer about some large Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood) for a project. I knew that we had these trees on the farm so I set out to obtain the photos the customer desired. In my haste, I neglected to consult the inventory to see in which block the trees were located. No problem though, I’ll just use my trusty (or in this case, rusty!) memory to find the trees in their correct block. The only problem is, dormant Metasequoia has a doppelganger; Taxodium distichum. Confused and unsure if what I was looking at was Dawn Redwood or Bald Cypress, I headed off to another block that I knew for certain to be Taxodium for comparison.
So, in the absence of a handy nursery sign, how DO you tell the difference between the two? They both have the same overall shape, they both have the same roughly exfoliating bark that can be best described as peeling in vertical strips. They both develop buttressed trunks as they age and they both have soft, fine, conifer-like foliage when in leaf. We do know that Metasequoia over the entirety of its life will grow taller but we cannot necessarily observe this to be true in a nursery setting where we intend for trees to live on our farm for no more than 20 years.
When in doubt, I consult with the guru of all things woody, Dr. Michael Dirr. About the Metasequoia, Dirr says, “the stems are branchlets of 2 kinds, persistent and deciduous; the persistent-bright reddish brown when young, shallowly ridged, carrying the deciduous branchlets, numerous vegetative buds and a few leaves; the green deciduous are up to about 3” long, usually arrange distichously (opposite vertical rows) more or less horizontal. He goes on to say that the buds are opposite, usually in pairs at the base of the branchlet but sometimes solitary between branchlets”
Dirr further says, about Taxodium, “the stems are of two kinds: later branchlets green, deciduous; young branchlets green, becoming brown the first winter.” About the buds of the Bald Cypress he says, ”they are alternate, near the tip of the stem, rounded with overlapping, sharp-pointed scales; smaller lateral buds also present and from them leafy, budless branches (branchlets) arise which fall in autumn. (this last statement made me have to read it 3 times before I understood it. (For my fellow grammar hounds, see also,” Eats. Shoots & Leaves” by Lynn Truss)
At the end of the day, all of those fancy horticultural terms and excessive punctuation basically say that Taxodium stems covered in small round buds in alternate arrangement while Metasequoia buds are large, more prominent, fewer in number and oppositely arranged. You are all welcome, by the way for the cliff notes version of Dirr!
As further evidence of how confusing this can be- enter exhibit A. The photos below show the foliage from first, Metasequoia and next Taxodium. As detailed above, the foliage is much the same, but the arrangement of the foliage (Branchlets) is quite different between the two.
Figure 1 Metasequoia glytostroboides foliage
Figure 2 Taxodium distichum foliage
I’ll expect all of you to memorize the above information. There will be a quiz on it later. Kidding! The next time in your life you are confronted with a doppelganger of the human, or the tree variety I suggest the following. If of the human persuasion, I recommend a friendly hello. How the doppelganger answers you will tell you everything you need to know immediately. If you are outside and spot one of the tricky genera above, remember what I taught you. In the words of the immortal and all knowing, Yoda, “Already know you that which you need.”
May the force and the wisdom to know the difference be with you.