Nursing an "Extinct" Tree Back to Health

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Ancient pollen samples show that the Wollemi pine or its near relatives dominated the forests of the southern hemisphere for more than 100 million years. Dramatic changes to the world's climate about 2 million years ago led to their demise.

Miraculously, a small grove of Wollemi pines hung on in the deep and humid chasms of the mountains west of Sydney.

Because the pines have been isolated for millions of years, they provide a rare opportunity for scientists. Research has revealed that the pines are all genetically identical, a condition previously unknown among sexually reproducing organisms. Scientists are being forced to rethink genetic theory as a consequence.

The pines send up multiple stems from the base of the trunks, known as coppicing. Most of the trees have several trunks, but one massive individual has 160.

"We think the coppicing is why the Wollemi pine has survived," said Offord. "These younger stems are waiting to replace the main trunk if it gets damaged or dies."

Conservation and Propagation

Since their discovery in 1994, two more small stands of pines have been found in nearby gorges, bringing the total wild population to 76 trees and about 200 seedlings. Despite the additional finds, the Wollemi pine remains one of the rarest trees in the world, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to extinction from disturbance or disease.

"The greatest threat now is man, because it's such a fragile environment," said Offord. Strict protection measures have been introduced by the NPWS and RBG, who are jointly managing conservation and research.

The location of the pines is kept completely secret, and there is a AUD$220,000 (US$133,000) fine for anyone disturbing them. Only a very small number of researchers are allowed to visit the main grove, and they must follow strict quarantine measures such as changing their clothes to prevent the introduction of weeds or diseases, said Offord.

To reduce the temptation for people to try and steal pines from the wild, and to increase the total number of pines in the world, the management committee decided to propagate the pines for sale as garden plants. Birkdale Nursery, a private company, and the Department of Primary Industry (Forestry), both in the state of Queensland, were awarded the rights.

In 2000 a special high security facility was built near Brisbane, and 400 trees propagated by the RBG from cuttings and seeds were handed over.

"The propagation is coming along really well," said Barbara McGeoch, general manager of Birkdale Nursery. "We hope to have more than half a million pines available by the time they go on sale in 2005/06."

Royalties from sales of the pine will go to the NPWS and RBG for conservation of the Wollemi pine and other threatened plants in the wild, said McGeoch.

The pine has already entered Australian culture; it's part of the school curriculum, and songs have been written about it, said Offord.

"It just goes to show that you need to conserve forest areas," she said, "even if you think that you know them really well. You never know what you might find."

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