Author: Susan Parsons
When field officer, experienced bushwalker and rock climber, David Noble abseiled into a remote gorge in the Wollemi National Park, west of Sydney, in 1994 it was a boy’s own adventure. He plunged over a waterfall and into an icy pool and found himself in a narrow canyon. Noble realised that the trees growing along the creek were unusual.
This large, glossy evergreen tree has bark that peels from young stems in red-brown scales and the older bark resembles bubbling chocolate. The male and female cones are found at the tips of branches on the same tree, with a majority of the female cones at the top of the trees.
They proved to be a tree new to science and, prior to this discovery of living trees, the genus was known only from fossils. The Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) belongs to the family Araucariaceae that includes the bunya bunya, hoop pine, Norfolk Island pine, kauri and monkey puzzle. The genus is thought to be 90 to 200 million years old.
In the wild, the tree is believed to live for more than 500 years. The Wollemi pine is considered to be critically endangered because fewer than 100 mature trees are known to exist in the wild. Two populations were discovered in 1994 and one further population in 2000 in the Greater Blue Mountains area of NSW.
Commercial partner Wollemi Australia has been licensed by the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney through the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to propagate and market the tree for sale in Australia and internationally. It also has its own website: www.wollemipine.com
The first planting in Australia was in 1998 in the Rare and Threatened Plant Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. The tree was propagated and grown at Mount Annan Botanic Gardens from cutting material collected in March 1996. It has flourished since 2007 during wetter weather conditions and has produced male and female cones.
There has been worldwide demand for the Wollemi pine that is now planted in many countries. In Australia it is sold at Botanic Gardens shops at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Mount Tomah and Mount Annan and at selected nurseries.
The Wollemi pine has been a favoured Father’s Day gift in Australia and blokes planted these remarkable ‘living fossils’, in pots and in the ground, with pride and fingers crossed. Many of the trees have grown well, particularly in sheltered conditions with plenty of compost added to the soil. The tree has a habit of growing side-shoots so the central leader is not particularly robust.
The Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University bought a Wollemi pine in 2005, at a First Generation Collectors’ Edition auction at Sotheby’s. It was planted in memory of Dr John Banks and grows in the forestry courtyard.
In 2013 Associate Professor Cris Brack said there are male and female cones abounding and it is up to six metres in height.
On 22 June 2007, a number of tree experts were invited to join the initial planting of Wollemi pines in Forest 16 at the National Arboretum Canberra. A significant proportion of the first planting was lost as people at the Arboretum learnt about the physiology and growing preferences of the trees. More Wollemi pines have been planted at the Arboretum.
In 2013 the tree measuring team at the Arboretum said the Wollemis are a good example of experimentation, which is one of the fundamentals of a successful arboretum. No one knows what the Wollemis are capable of horticulturally. The trees growing on the steep, rocky south-east facing slopes of the site are doing well, and some are 3 metres in height. Many have male and female cones, and a watch is being kept on the females to see if they produce seeds. What is also evident with this large planting of Wollemis, is the unexpectedly high degree of variability between individuals, hopefully indicating substantial genetic diversity.