An electrical storm felled Cylburn Arboretum’s beloved dawn redwood, a popular natural landmark in Baltimore where generations of visitors have posed for photos and staged momentous life events.

Cylburn caretakers arrived at the arboretum Tuesday morning to discover lightning from a storm the night before had seriously damaged three trees on the property. Gardening staff quickly turned their hoses on an already-dead purple beech found smoldering near the nature center. However, there was nothing to be done for the popular dawn redwood located near Cylburn Mansion in the heart of the park.

The lightning strike had so forcefully splintered the decades-old tree’s soft wood that it flung a mess of heavy branches and lush green needles across the lawn. A third tree nearby also took some blows when the dawn redwood exploded.

“There are a few things this place [Cylburn] is known for and this tree is one of them,” said Brooke Fritz, executive director for the nonprofit Cylburn Arboretum Friends.

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The deciduous conifer, which somewhat resembles the redwoods of the West Coast, was thought to be extinct but was discovered in the wild in China in the 1940s. Its location at the base of Cylburn Mansion provided visitors with a dramatic backdrop for images over the decades.

Children often tiptoed across the raised roots at the base of its trunk. Summer camp attendees smiled for portraits in its cool shade. Lovers professed their devotion to one another beneath the branches. Locals took to social media this week to grieve the dawn redwood’s unexpected destruction overnight Monday, when a tornado watch was in effect for the region.

The arboretum sits on one of the highest elevation points in Baltimore, exposing some trees in the 200-acre free public park to potential damage from wind or storms, Fritz said. Those like the dawn redwood that stand alone are more vulnerable than others nestled in groves.

An electrical storm felled Cylburn Arboretum’s beloved dawn redwood, a popular natural landmark in Baltimore, on Monday, May 27, 2024. (Courtesy of Cylburn Arboretum)

Trees damaged beyond saving are often carved into artistic sculptures or processed into lumber that can be used for things like benches and walking sticks. That’s likely what will happen to the dawn redwood, though officials are still assessing how much of the soft wood can be saved.

In the meantime, visitors can find younger dawn redwoods elsewhere in the park. A Boy Scout troop planted about a dozen of them between two visitor parking lots in the fall.

On Wednesday morning, Fritz said Cylburn’s gardeners were already back at work planting more trees around the park.

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