‘Dinosaur tree’ or ‘living fossil’, the Wollemi Pine is certainly one of the greatest botanical discoveries of our time.
In September 1994 David Noble, an officer with the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, discovered some trees he didn’t quite recognise. In a deep, narrow canyon of the rugged Wollemi National Park, he discovered what we now call Wollemia nobilis or the Wollemi Pine. It is named after him and the park in which it was found.
The dramatic discovery of an evolutionary line thought to be long extinct is even more remarkable with these tall and striking trees growing only 150 km from Sydney, the largest city in Australia. They were found in the extremely rugged Wollemi National Park, a largely undisturbed wilderness area.
It’s rare, it’s endangered, it’s strange looking, and at first we didn’t know all that much about it. Wollemi Pine is believed to exist in only one location which is within 200 km of the heart of
Sydney, Australia's largest city. There are less than 40 trees. This makes it one of the rarest
plants in the world.
It belongs in the plant family Araucariaceae but has distinctive features.
However it has very different features from any known living pine. Its closest relatives are probably the extinct pines which were a dominant feature of the landscape of what is now Australia during the Jurassic andCretaceous Periods - between 200 and 65 million years ago. These pines are known to us only from fossils.
The original parent plants were found growing in highly organic loam at the base of a constantly cool moist sandstone gorge. The loam is very acidic with a pH of 3.5. Their location at the bottom of these gorges is probably related to the site providing protection from bushfires which can sweep through this area.
Even though the Wollemi Pine produces numerous fruiting cones, seed set is very low. In nature viable seed germinates very quickly, but under the canopy of adults, lack of light restricts their growth to maturity.
Conifers tend to be dark green but the leaves of Wollemi Pine are a light green - varying from bright lime green on younger foliage to apple green on mature foliage. The leaf structure is extremely complex and unusual. The upper branches of the trees are tipped with bright green female cones and brown, cylindrical, male cones (the trees are bisexual).
The trunks of Wollemi Pine have a highly unusual brown, knobby cork-like bark which has led
it to being dubbed 'the Coco Pops tree'.
Indeed it appears to be a true "living fossil", most closely related to extinct species of
Araucariaceae in the fossil record in southern Australia about 50 million years ago.
The family Araucariaceae is an important group in studying the history of our flora.
Araucariaceae had a world-wide distribution in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods 200 to 65
million years ago. Since the great extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous period,
Araucariaceae have survived only in the southern hemisphere.
The present occurence suggest a Gondwanic distribution, linked to the time when Australia, New Zealand, Africa, South America and India were all parts of the great supercontinent Gondwana.
Wollemi Pine, is so distinctive that it represents a new genus and must have been an
evolutionary line distinct from any other surviving plant group for at least 65 million years.
The new plant is related to Araucaria, which includes Australia's Hoop Pine and Bunya Pine
and the Norfolk Island Pine, and also to Agathis including the Kauri Pine of New Zealand.
Wollemi Pine is a conifer ('pine') whose nearest living relatives are native pines of Australia and
New Zealand: Hoop Pine, Bunya Pine, and Norfolk Island Pine.
The single known population of Wollemi Pine is in a rainforest gully within Wollemi National
Park (487,648 ha). This is the State's largest wilderness area - located West of the Putty Road
between Sydney and the Hunter Valley.
The mature plants are between 27 and 35 metres high with trunks up to 1 metre in diameter.
However the tree can grow taller: one fallen trunk is 38 metres long.
During the Jurassic Period (208 - 144 million years ago), the continental mass which we call
Australia was part of the great supercontinent of Gondwana, towgether with Africa, South
America and India. What is now the east coast of Australia lay close to the South Pole, but
worldwide climates were uniformly warm to hot and wet.
From the Cretaceous Period (144 - 66.4 million years ago) modern flowering plants began to
evolve and gradually displace the conifers in the Southern Hemisphere.
Because of the extreme danger to the plant from illegal seed collecting, the location of the population is being kept secret.