Prehistoric Pine To Be Sold
by John Harmon
July 4, 1999

Walking outside Friday morning you would think you had been transported back in time. Instead of warm late June weather it was just 3 degrees C above freezing! Not great weather for the new variety of corn planted out in my garden. I think it's still in shock.

Last year I mentioned in a column that a prehistoric pine tree had been discovered in Wollemi National Park. The Park, which contains the largest wilderness area in New South Wales, is a rugged mountainous region of canyons, cliffs and undisturbed forest about 200 Km north west of Sydney, Australia. The mature trees are found only in two small areas within the park boundries. The trees grow on wet ledges in deep sheltered rainforest gullies.

Like many notable finds, the discovery of the Wollemi Pine was made by chance. In August 1994, a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service field officer was bushwalking in the Wollemi National Park when he stumbled across a grove of trees that he did not recognize immediately. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Senior Naturalist in the Blue Mountains area, when called upon to identify the plant, soon realized that here was indeed an unidentified plant. Botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney were consulted and confirmed the identification.

The "Wollemi Pine" tree is a conifer that grows to a height of 35 metres with a trunk diameter of over one metre. The leaves vary from bright lime green on younger foliage to an apple green on mature foliage. The trunk is particularly unusual in being covered with brown, knobby, spongy bark. The Wollemi Pine is related to the Hoop Pine and Norfolk Island Pine, which are members of the Araucaria family.

Like other Araucaria, each tree is bisexual with both female and male reproductive cones on the same tree. The upper branches bear male and female cones separately. Female cones are borne on newer stems at the end of each branch, while the male cones occur lower down on older stems. Both male and female cones are green when young and red-brown when mature. The winged seeds are probably dispersed by wind. The Wollemi Pine is a "living fossil". The discovery of the Wollemi Pine is particularly significant in being a previously unknown genus whose closest relatives are fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods between 200 million and 65 million years ago.

The survival of this small pocket of trees is remarkable and may be considered to be a freak of nature, particularly since many of its closest relatives were displaced by flowering plants. The discovery of the Wollemi Pine emphasizes the importance of national parks systems in the conservation of rare and endangered species.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service was responsible for preparing a conservation strategy to protect the grove of Wollemi Pine. Till recently that was accomplished by keeping the location secret . The 38 adult pines in two small groups are considered so valuable it was decided that secrecy would protect them from poachers and black marketeers.

The new strategy is to sell them. An agreement between the government departments involved and Birkdale Nursery in Sydney gives the nursery the exclusive rights to market and export the plants worldwide. Royalties from the sale of the pine will go to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to continue it's research.

What this means for you is that within the next five years you will be able to buy one of these living fossils for your plant collection. Of course if it had been outside Friday morning around my place it would once again be extinct!

John Harmon owns and operates Tropicals North. Write to John at The Real Dirt, c\o 211 Wood St., Whitehorse, YT., Y1A 2E4 or e-mail this is the end

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