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The Wollemi Pine was one of the major botanical discoveries of the twentieth century. The earliest Wollemi Pines were identified from Cretaceous period fossils and were thought to have died out 2 million years ago1. Botanists were therefore somewhat surprised when a living specimen was discovered in 1994.
It was discovered by David Noble, a Parks Officer in the Wollemi National Park in Australia, about 150km away from Sydney, when he abseiled into an unexplored sandstone gorge. At the bottom he found himself surrounded by trees he couldn't recognise. Puzzled, he took a sample back to Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. They couldn't identify the plant either, so an expedition was sent out, led by Noble himself. This captured more details about the trees including its distinctive bark2. The plant was identified as a new species and named after the park it was found in and its discoverer. The shock of finding something so strange so close to a major city led said Jimmy Turner, Director of Horticultural Research at Dallas Arboretum, to say: "It’s the equivalent of finding a Tyrannosaurus rex in your back yard."
How to recognise a Wollemi Pine
Wollemi Pines are rare in the wild, with fewer than one hundred adult trees known, so most recognition is done in botanic gardens. The easiest way to recognise a Wollemi Pine is to visit Kew Gardens and look for a tree in a cage. Other ways to recognise it include buying one from a specialist nursery, looking for the small tree in a pot marked Wollemi Pine. For the determined recogniser the tree has a few other distinctive features that vary with the age of the plant.
The young plant looks like a fern with long thin green leaves and a woody stem. As it ages the leaves fade in colour while the bark changes from a nondescript brown to an extremely descript bubbly-brown, as though the bark is covered in Coco Pops. The tree grows tall and slender. It also coppices easily, meaning that many trunks can rise from the same stump. This makes it very difficult to tell how old any Wollemi Pine is, as counting the rings to the core does not give the age of the tree, merely of that particular shoot. The tree can reach heights of 35m in the wild3.
A mature tree will produce male and female cones4 at the ends of branches. The male cones are lower on the plant and are comparatively long and thin. The female cones are squatter and rounder in shape and are found on the branches at the top of the tree. The cones are wind pollinated in the spring (October-November in Australia) and take about 16-19 months to mature. The seed cones disintegrate, scattering the seed to produce new saplings, which usually die5.
The long-term past and short-term future of Wollemi Pines
Pinning down the exact origins of the Wollemi Pine is difficult. The tree now thought to be one of the Araucariaceae. The most famous Araucariaceae is the Monkey Puzzle Tree, (Araucaria araucana). Others include the Norfolk Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and the Kauri (Agathis australis). The family is now found, with a few exception only in the southern hemisphere, but was found worldwide after the Triassic era. It is possible that that when you look at the knobbly surface of the Wollemi Pine, you're staring at Jurassic bark.
Araucariaceae as a whole started to decline after the end of the Cretaceous period. Wollemi Pines separated as a species of their own around this time and between then and now have had difficult time. Genetic testing of the trees has found it's impossible to distinguish between them6, suggesting a recent bottleneck in the population. The spread of the Wollemi Pines is now limited to three regions in the Wollemi National Park in The Blue Mountains.
This limited distribution means the future may be bleak for the trees in the wild. They are susceptible to fungal infections7, and one stand of trees may have been infected by tourists eager to see the trees in the wild before they become extinct.
The other danger is climate change. This has an immediate impact in making bushfires more common and more fierce. So far the stands of Wollemi Pines have survived in sheltered locations. A longer term problem is that rising temperatures may make life impossible in these locations8. In theory the species could survive if new seedlings grew further up the mountains. However, this relies on the mountains rising higher than the temperature as there's a limit on how much up a mountain has.
There is not likely to be any on site eco-tourism as the stands are thought to be too vulnerable to fungal infection. The directive against visiting applies to scientific teams too. While there will be monitoring, the Recovery Plan aims to limit scientific visits as each fieldtrip has the potential to cause damage9.
By itself this will not stop people from wanting to see the trees, so the conservation effort has worked to bringing the trees to visitors instead. Wollemi Pines are grown in Australia and around the world. They can be seen in locations as diverse as The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Dallas Arboretum, Texas and the Natural History Museum Garden, Paris.
To prevent the attention of collectors causing problems, it is also possible to purchase your own Wollemi Pine. Licensing commercial propagation is a way of funding conservation efforts of Wollemi Pines and other endangered species in Australia. This initiative creates the peculiar opportunity for anyone to host a lifeform that's rarer in the wild than a giant panda.