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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