Now Available for the Patio: A Prehistoric Relic

A stand of Wollemi pines was discovered on a moist, rocky ledge 12 years ago. Two more small groves have been found.
A stand of Wollemi pines was discovered on a moist, rocky ledge 12 years ago. Two more small groves have been found. (National Geographic Society Photos)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Twelve years ago, park ranger David Noble was hiking in a remote rain forest gorge in Australia's Wollemi National Park when he discovered a grove of old conifers, pinelike trees that were as strange as they were beautiful. They were growing on a moist, rocky ledge in the park, which is part of the Greater Blue Mountains.

The tree's bark looked like bubbling chocolate and the foliage was feathery, pendulous and bolder than pine needles. Noble gathered a fallen branch to give to botanists. Their verdict? He had found the botanical equivalent of a living dinosaur. Only fossils of the plant had been known before, and those were at least 2 million years old. Scientists called it the Wollemi pine -- Noble's role was embodied in its botanical name, Wollemi nobilis. It becomes only the third genus in a plant family that dates to about 200 million years ago.

A marketing consortium that includes the Sydney-based Botanic Gardens Trust has adopted a two-pronged strategy: Keep the exact location of the plants secret (two other small groves have since been found) and propagate lots of little Wollemi pines from cuttings to sell around the world to raise money to conserve the plant's habitat. Fewer than 100 mature trees have been found; the tallest is 131 feet, with a trunk almost five feet across.

It is unlikely to grow anywhere near that big in cultivation, not for a few centuries at least, but its introduction in Britain this year caused a lot of excitement in the gardening world. This fall, it was introduced to U.S. consumers by the National Geographic Society, where one-gallon plants sold for $99.95 (about half the asking price of the U.K. plants). The first batch is sold out, though the society is taking orders for April delivery, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/Wollemipine. Its U.S. distributor also plans to make it available at select independent garden centers in the spring.

The discovery of living fossils, while rare in horticulture, is not unprecedented. The ginkgo tree, an evolutionary oddball that clung to life for 350 million years in China's Zhejiang province, made its way to Europe in the mid-18th century and is now a common street tree in Washington.

And a deciduous conifer named the dawn redwood was rediscovered in 1941 by a Chinese forester named T. Kan. A few years later, it was identified as the same plant as a fossil that grew at least 3 million years earlier. It was introduced to the West in the late 1940s and since has become one of the most pleasing trees in the landscape. It grows rapidly, produces lovely apple-green needles, and, like the ginkgo, seems free of serious pests and diseases. The red bark flakes, and the trunks flare at the base. In large gardens, a grove looks stunning.

Whether the Wollemi pine will prove as useful is unknown. It is not as hardy as either the dawn redwood or the ginkgo.

The pines grow in temperatures as low as 23 degrees, and trials in the United States and Japan indicate it will tolerate lows down to 10 degrees. If you can grow rosemary and figs in your garden, the Wollemi pine might make it. Clearly, it will need a protected site in our region to survive.

It is one of a few distinct Southern Hemisphere conifers, the most common of which is the Norfolk Island pine, now commonly available as a houseplant in supermarkets. Like the Wollemi, it is not related to the pine. Captain Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island in the South Pacific in 1774, when he noted the tree, which grows to 200 feet. Twenty years later it was brought back to the West on a British naval ship and began its slow, steady spread into the parlors, conservatories and greenhouses of Europe and North America.

Around the same time another Wollemi relative, the monkey puzzle tree, made its way to Britain when naturalist and naval officer Archibald Menzies saw some cones at a dinner given by the Spanish viceroy in St. Jago, Chile, and slipped some in his pocket, according to an account by Maggie Campbell-Culver in "The Origin of Plants." Ironically, as the monkey puzzle tree became ubiquitous in Britain, its native habitat in Chile became increasingly threatened.

It grows large in the mild climate of Britain, as well as in California and the Pacific Northwest, but it is a hard tree to grow in the mid-Atlantic. A few adventurous gardeners tend it here -- I know of one prominently displayed in Georgetown -- but it is slow and marginal.

The Wollemi pine is a curious plant; like the monkey puzzle, it sheds whole branches rather than old needles. It produces multiple trunks from the same plant, which scientists think is a defense mechanism against fire damage. In winter, its buds are covered in a prominent white wax.

The consortium's Web site, http://www.wollemipine.com/, says that as an indoor plant it should be placed in a bright location and taken outdoors occasionally. "As the Wollemi pine can be maintained in a pot almost indefinitely," the authors write, "it is well suited to patios, verandahs and courtyards."

Grown indoors or out, it is a reminder that our green world still holds mysteries. How fitting that in the Aboriginal language, Wollemi means "look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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