WASHINGTON – In the west wing of the U.S. Botanic Garden,most plants share a garden,intermingling and exposed to the greenhouse air. The Wollemi Pine is special. It lives in its own,cushy,private glass case.
After 90 million years,it has earned it.
The Wollemi (pronounced WALL-um-eye) Pine is dubbed a “living fossil” and is here as part of an effort to preserve and propagate the tree.
The young specimen at the botanic garden is no more than 18 inches tall. Its needles look more like blades of grass,deep green and packed close together. Its trunk and branches are green,but will one day grow into a dark,mottled brown. It looks more like a fern than a pine tree.
However,nobody knew what it looked like,or that it was even alive,until 1994. Before that,it was just a fossilized imprint,known only to paleontologists and presumed extinct for at least 2 million years. But when a park ranger in New South Wales ventured into an undisturbed canyon in Australia's Blue Mountains,about 100 miles west of Sydney,he came upon a tree that neither he nor anyone else had ever seen.
“A lot of people sort of think there's nothing new,” said Christine Flanagan,botanic garden public programs manager. “Everything's been done,everything's been seen,except for what happens,maybe,in a test tube. But here,this thing's growing in the wild within two hours of 4.5 million people,and nobody knew it was there.”
Scientists later confirmed that the newly discovered plant was of a species that dated back at least 90 million years – and possibly even further,into the Jurassic Period – and was thought to have been extinct. They regarded it as having found a dinosaur still roaming around in the backyard.
“It is truly a living fossil,” Flanagan said. “You'd think with that kind of proximity to Sydney,Australia,it'd have been found.”
The tree's rarity and isolated location prevented that. Fewer than 100 adult trees exist in the wild,all of them in Wollemi National Park,a preserved area with hundreds of remote,untouched canyons. The trees' exact location has been kept secret for fear that visitors would cause damage or introduce pathogens to which the trees have never been exposed.
“It is thought that the remoteness of the location and the fact that it has remained undisturbed for so long may explain why the Wollemi Pines have survived there for so many millions of years and overcome,fires,climate change,etc.,” said Sally McGeoch,marketing communications manager for Australia's Wollemi Pine International,via e-mail.
Adult Wollemi Pines can be up to 130 feet tall and have trunks wider than 3 feet. The exhibition of the young specimen at the botanic garden,lasting through May 28,is part of preparations to sell the trees. Specimens are being test-grown around the world to see how the tree handles different environments. By the end of this year,anyone interested in growing a Wollemi Pine will be able to purchase one.
The sale is part of a “conservation through propagation” effort that Flanagan said could save the tree from extinction.
“The numbers of Wollemi Pine in the world will be greatly increased,and it will be all over,so that the chance of it going extinct will just drop to nil,” she said. “So even if the natural population in Wollemi National Park for some reason becomes diseased and they disappear,there will be hundreds of thousands of these growing all over the world.”
Proceeds from the sale will fund conservation of the Wollemi Pine and other endangered plants in Australia,McGeoch said.
The discovery of a plant or animal species long thought to be extinct is rare. The last notable plant discovery was the Dawn Redwood,which was found in China in 1943,Flanagan said. Most instances of a rare and endangered plant,however,do not have such a promising chance of recovery from near-extinction through commercial distribution,McGeoch said.
Plant growers interested in eventually purchasing a Wollemi Pine can find more information at http://www.wollemipine.com.