Not just a fossil after all – the wollemi pine.

Our gifted wollemi

We were enormously touched when friends gave us their wollemi pine to plant in our park, where it has every chance to reach maturity. They had bought one of the first NZ releases of this endangered Australian plant – at a pretty hefty price tag of several hundred dollars – but were relocating from a large country property to a smaller town section and the wollemi would have been highly threatened by future property owners or neighbours, had they planted it in suburbia. In the longer term, it has the potential to reach 40 metres in height. It was a gift of love when they brought it out to us because it was a tree that meant a great deal to them and one that we were honoured to receive.

The wollemi – botanically Wollemia nobilis – is an ancient tree, dating back to the Jurassic period of dinosaurs. Yet it was not even discovered until 1994, when observant bushwalker, David Noble, came across a plant he didn’t recognise in a relatively remote canyon in the Wollemi National Park, a mere 150 kilometres from Sydney. Until then, it had only been seen in fossil form and it was thought to have died out, maybe millions of years ago.

A multi branched wollemi at Sydney Botanic Gardens last week

It is referred to as a pine and in time it produces cones but it has been declared a single species within a genus all of its own. So nobilis is the species. One step up the botanical nomenclature tree is the genus and this plant is so unique it was a given a genus of its own which is the wollemia part of the name. Only on the third step do we start to place its relatives and they are not pine trees (which are Pinaceae); it is Araucariacea which puts it in the same family as monkey puzzle trees and our native kauri. You have to go another step up to the order of Pinales before you get the botanical intersection with pines.

To the layperson, it looks closer to the podocarps – of the Podocarpus macrophyllus type – although they are in the same Pinales order referred to above so no more closely related to the wollemi than the pines are.

The wollemi at the Australian National Arboretum is already mature enough to bear cones

I mention this because it leads me to the story of an old rogue we knew (now deceased) who never felt obliged to follow the law when it came to plant imports. He turned up here triumphantly one day, totally unasked, bearing cuttings that he declared were the wollemi – purloined from the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, from memory. I had seen one of the earliest wollemi plants in the Canberra Botanical Gardens locked in a cage which was an interesting indicator of its perceived value. Mark was sure that the stolen cuttings were in fact a podocarp and to this day, we wonder whether the Melbourne garden staff named one of the podocarps as a wollemi to fool people such as the old rogue who shall remain nameless. If so, it worked.

The Canberra wollemi again – it was home to a rather large, showy, orange beetle which we do not have in NZ, I think.

The story of the discovery is interesting, as is the botany of this ancient plant (and its adaptability and very survival). But also the control of propagation, marketing and sales is remarkable. Getting it into wide circulation is one method of ensuring its continued survival. Intensive searching has led to the identification of fewer than 100 adult plants in a very limited natural habitat which makes it extremely vulnerable in the wild. Its original location remains a tightly guarded secret to protect the remaining trees. With the spread of kauri dieback (Phytophthora agathidicida) in this country where a main disease vector is human footwear, this seems a wise move. I have no idea who controlled the propagation (a lot of it is through tissue culture), distribution and marketing of the wollemi pine but it has been interesting to view from afar. There was a heavy emphasis from the start on “telling the story”, as is oft said, and the pricing has always been high which conferred considerable status on this unique plant. Especially considering it is not instantly appealing as a small plant and it is going to make a forest giant. It was the first new plant species that we were aware of being imported into New Zealand when our borders all but closed down to new plant imports. The fee for risk assessment at the time was around $65 000 and, from memory, it was a Christchurch institution that came up with that money to get it into the country legally. No individual or plant nursery is likely to come up with that sum for a single plant.

We will watch our precious plant grow over our lifetime. The well-established specimens in both the National Arboretum in Canberra and Sydney Botanic Gardens both promise that it will mature into an interesting character plant to match its interesting back story.

This is the Sydney wollemi again, viewed from the other side. I didn’t even register the bedding plants because I was looking at the sculpture.

It is clearly a sculpture with its own history, although I personally have no knowledge of the work of Andrew Fleischmann.

I was completely unconvinced that the addition of the camellias enhanced the sculpture, I am afraid. With bedding plants below, it smacked more of the descent of what I call “naffdom” rendering it merely sentimental. Or naff.

As a postscript, a reader has just sent me the following photo of her wollemi which she was thrilled to be given as a birthday present. This one is growing in the Dartmoor area of south east England. Just as the metasequoia was rapidly dispersed throughout the world after its rediscovery by plant hunters in China in the 1940s (we have an early one from that collection in our park), so too is the wollemi becoming a significant tree around the world.  

12 thoughts on “Not just a fossil after all – the wollemi pine.

  1. Ray

    Walking around the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, getting some sunshine to beat jet lag and waiting for our hotel to let’s us in, I was really chuffed to see a largish sapling Wollemi with a metal dinosaur, presumably to indicating its ancient lineage.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Not sure if a metal dinosaur trumps the figure in Sydney Bot Gardens or not! But the wollemi sure is proving to be an adaptable plant. Somebody in the UK has apparently planted out a small forest of them. I am guessing they did not pay $400 a plant.

  2. tonytomeo

    Oh my! What an important specimen! It seems like only a few years ago, the dawn redwood was still considered to be rare, even after more than half a century of cultivation. Eventually, we realized that it had become rather common as a result of its trendiness. (I never liked it much, and now work with a rather large specimen that was planted in 1989 or so.)

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have a very handsome Dawn Redwood specimen that dates back to the mid 1950s. Planted in its own space by water, it is a fine tree. But we will not live long enough to see if the wollemi achieves a similar stature over the next 60 years!

      1. tonytomeo

        At least you know it is there, where it will be safer than it would be in other places, and that it might be one of the important trees that becomes a parent for other trees in the future.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        It is a different mindset to live amongst trees of some lineage – a small stand of otiginal native tawa forest (Beilschmiedia tawa), native rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), non-native eucalypts and pine species from the 1870s, more from 1900 and then a planting of individual species of interesting arboretum trees from the 1950s on. In a country where trees are lucky to live past 20 or 25 years old, it is a relatively unusual situation to be in.

      3. tonytomeo

        I know what you mean. I think I enjoy the very old native trees and botanically important trees at the farm more than I otherwise would because part of my other work is condemning and procuring removal permits for trees of historical significance in the Santa Clara Valley. I have inspected a giant redwood planted (at least in pictures) by President Roosevelt, and California fan palms at the Winchester House. The work needs to be done, but it is unpleasant. One of the most inane jobs that I ever worked on was a collection of coastal redwoods that had once been memorial trees around the old City Hall of Sunnyvale (where my ancestors are from), but has since been redeveloped around. I had to prescribe the techniques for removal of the pavement that had been there since 1978. There had former been deodar cedars there as well, but they died decades ago. The work itself was not a problem, but the memorial plaques that were removed from the trees were tossed into a pile and then later reattached to the trees very randomly. Some were labeled as deodar cedars even though there were no cedars remaining. An unimportant tree that was added in 1978 was labeled as being the oldest, while a memorial tree dedicated to Veterans of World War I was labeled as the unimportant tree added in 1978, as if no one would notice how big it is.

      4. tonytomeo

        I was not amused. The idiocy and indifference were offensive. What is funny is that we are supposed to have more intellectual and educated people here than anywhere else in the World, and yet we excel at such ridiculous stupidity. They just keep coming! There are moments of hilarity, such as the panic that ensues when the electricity goes out for a few minutes, or when an opossum wanders into town.

  3. Pingback: A visit to Sydney Botanic Gardens | Tikorangi The Jury Garden

  4. sandra

    At Kew Gardens last week – young wollemi pines in pots for sale and I’m sure I spotted larger specimens behind a locked fence. Didn’t see the price on them, unfortunately. Apparently they’ve been on sale at Kew since 2005.

Comments are closed.