The Wollemi Pine and Jurassic* Bark

Wollemia Nobilis in a small pot

Introducing Skippy the Bush, a Wollemi Pine.

*“It’s the equi­val­ent of find­ing a Tyrannosaurus rex in your back yard,” said Jimmy Turner, Director of Horticultural Research at Dallas Arboretum. It’s either a tri­umph of mar­ket­ing or a mill­stone round the neck of bot­an­ists who think the Wollemi Pine should have a place in the Anthropocene as well as the Jurassic era.

The first fossils of a Wollemi Pine-like tree date from around 200 mil­lion years ago at the start of the Jurassic. The last are from around two mil­lion years ago and it had been thought to be extinct. In 1996 David Noble, a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services Officer, was in Wollemi National Park and found what looked like an odd tree. He took a fallen branch to bot­an­ists who first thought it was a fern. When Noble said it was from a tree it star­ted a research pro­gramme that even­tu­ally found this was a whole new genus of plant sim­ilar to the trees that were com­mon in the time of the dinosaurs.

The situ­ation today is that fewer than 100 mature trees sur­vive in the wild. When it comes to being endangered the Wollemi Pine makes the Giant Panda pop­u­la­tion look pos­it­ively healthy. It’s closer to the Kakapo. It seems to me extraordin­ary that you can now buy some­thing crit­ic­ally endangered for the back garden. The big advant­age the Wollemi Pine has over the Kakapo is that it has more options for repro­duc­tion. A Kakapo like nearly all other anim­als needs a part­ner of the same spe­cies to repro­duce, or the attempt ends in fail­ure.

A Wollemi Pine is monoecious, mean­ing that it pro­duces both male and female cones. Additionally it can be grown from cut­tings. It’s this abil­ity to repro­duce that means it’s feas­ible to release the spe­cies to the hor­ti­cul­tural mar­ket, even though it’s crit­ic­ally endangered. Van Berkel Distributors Pty Ltd have set up dis­tri­bu­tion to do just this. It helps pro­tect the plant from col­lect­ors by mak­ing it unne­ces­sary to visit the few remain­ing wild trees to own a Wollemi Pine. The mar­ket­ing push is also help­ing raise funds for con­ser­va­tion. It might be pos­sible to steal plants, but it’s so much easier for most people to buy one from a local dealer — though North American dis­tri­bu­tion is cur­rently not pos­sible.

As for Skippy, I think it’s vul­ner­able at the very least. It’ll be re-potted into a lar­ger pot and then planted pos­sibly in the spring. The instruc­tions sug­gest that Wollemi Pines don’t need a lot of care, other than not being over-watered. It’s been the wet­test April and June on record, and it might be the same for July this year. The lawn is water­logged and it seems Wollemi Pines are prone to root rot. Right now the tree sit­ting on a bench on the patio, sheltered from some of the rain with plenty of oppor­tun­ity for excess rain to run off or through rather than sink in to the pot. It’ll prob­ably have to come back inside. Fortunately the sur­vival of the spe­cies isn’t going to rely on just me, though this may be little com­fort to Skippy if I get things wrong.

It’s an inter­est­ing approach to con­ser­va­tion, and with the dis­cov­ery of more pre­his­toric ante­cedents for other plants, it opens up new oppor­tun­it­ies for themed parks. With the rise of pub­lic par­ti­cip­a­tion in sci­ence, a con­ser­va­tion scheme that people will buy into, where the work is mainly leav­ing the thing to grow seems worth a try. It could help make some­thing like the image below a thing of the past.

A Wollemi Pine in a cage

A Wollemi Pine at Kew Gardens.

If you’re inter­ested in Wollemi Pine repro­duc­tion there’s a 1999 paper by Offord et al. called Sexual Reproduction and Early Plant Growth of the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), a Rare and Threatened Australian Conifer. You can down­load the PDF for free from the Annals of Botany website.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

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