Nursing an "Extinct" Tree Back to Health

Elizabeth M. Tasker
for National Geographic News
March 5, 2003

In 1994 a bizarre-looking tree previously known only from 120 million-year-old fossil leaves was discovered alive and well in a rugged gorge west of Sydney, Australia.

Fewer than 100 Wollemi pines exist in the wild, and scientists and horticulturists are undertaking a massive effort to cultivate additional trees to improve the species' chances of survival. By 2005/2006 more than half a million of them will go on sale worldwide as garden and indoor plants.

Discovery of a Living "Dinosaur"

Extensive forests cover the Blue Mountains, located 93 miles (150 kilometers) west of Sydney. Although the average elevation is only about 3,300 feet (1,000 meters), the mountains are rugged with many impassable cliffs and deep gorges.

The Wollemi wilderness is the most inaccessible area; a plateau with more than 400 plunging canyons—deep chasms eroded in the soft sandstone, often only a few meters wide and filled with pools of icy cold water.

On a hiking trip in 1994, David Noble, an officer with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), noticed a grove of unusual-looking trees growing in a deep, sheltered rainforest canyon.

The trees had strange bark that looked like bubbles of chocolate, multiple trunks, ferny-looking leaves growing in spirals and were up to 125 feet (38 meters) tall.

Noble collected some foliage, and months of taxonomic research by botanists at the NPWS and Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (RBG) followed. The tree was finally revealed to the world as a new genus and species, Wollemia nobilis in December 1994.

The discovery was the botanical equivalent of finding a dinosaur alive today.

"It was very significant that we'd discovered such a large plant living so close to Australia's largest city that is botanically unique, and something that scientists dream about—a link back to Australia's prehistoric past," said Cathy Offord, a horticultural scientist with the RBG and one of the first botanists to see the pine in the wild.

Relics of an Ancient Forest

Wollemi pines are members of the ancient Araucariaceae family, also known as Monkey Puzzle trees. These are plants of the southern hemisphere, and most are now found in isolated populations in South America, New Caledonia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and Australia.

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