PLANT OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Common names: Wollemi Pine
Scientific name: Wollemia nobilis
Explanation of scientific name:
Wollemia- Named for Wollemi National Park in Australia.
nobilis – Honors David Noble, the discoverer of this species.
Imagine entering an isolated and remote area of the world, and encountering a living example of a dinosaur that was thought to be extinct for millions of years. On September 10, 1994 David Noble experienced the botanical equivalent of that as he explored a deep gorge in the Blue Mountains of Wollemi National Park, 120 miles west of Sydney, Australia. Noble, a New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service employee, had rappelled 1800 feet down a gorge through cold waterfalls and found himself in a cool rain forest. There he spotted a small grove of trees unlike any he had ever seen before. He collected a small sample that was later identified as a new species, never previously described. This species, consisting of about 100 individuals found in just this one place, soon gained international recognition. As one of the world’s most endangered tree species, the grove’s exact location is kept secret for fear that intrusion by other than concerned plant scientists could jeopardize the only natural population of what was named the Wollemi Pine.
Wollemi Pines truly are “living fossils.” Fossilized remains of the species indicate that it was alive 200 million years ago, and undoubtedly witnessed dinosaurs. But, no known fossils of the tree are less than 93 million years old. Wollemi Pine pollen can be found in two million year old sediments from Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica, but not in more recent sediments. Scientists incorrectly concluded that the species had been extinct for the past two million years. Today it is believed that as the Australian climate became drier over time, the only population of Wollemi Pines to survive were those located in that deep, remote gorge. That area of Australia is subject to periodic but intense wildfires, making it even more amazing that the species has persisted. Genetic analysis indicates that all members of the grove are closely related, and exhibit little genetic diversity. Wollemi Pines do not have any real close relatives. They are a type of conifer, but despite their common name are not true pines (members of the genus Pinus). Instead they are more closely related to Norfolk Island Pines and Monkey Puzzle Trees, and taxonomically the three are all placed together in the plant family Araucariaceae.
Wollemi Pines grow to a height of 130 feet, and the largest specimen is between 800 and 1000 years old. Their leaves are narrow, flat, tapered to a point, and are often found in two rows along twigs. The trees are often multiple-trunked, with warty bark described as “bubbly.” Individual trees produce both male and female cones, and set seed. But the trees do not seem to grow from seeds in nature. Instead they propagate from runners extending from old trees and stumps. Seed viability is often less than ten percent.
People have successfully propagated the tree from cuttings. As these offspring are planted in varied regions around the world, it appears that they can grow several feet a year once they are established, and can tolerate temperatures as low as 10 F. Wollemi Pines grown from cuttings were first offered for sale by Sotheby’s in London in 2005, and reportedly sold for thousands of dollars. Today they are available from several organizations for considerably less. All plants sold have a portion of the proceeds dedicated to the preservation of that single natural grove of the species.
One important lesson that can be learned from the story of the Wollemi Pine is that it is difficult to ascertain when a species actually becomes extinct based on fossil evidence. If a species becomes rare it may not show up in the fossil record, but it might still be here.