How firefighters saved Wollemi Pine from bushfires.
Fewer than 100 mature trees are left today. Their exact location, however, is one of Australia’s best-kept secrets for plant conservation. This is to protect the pines from pathogens like the root-rotting Phytophthora, which human visitors might carry.
Our ongoing research with citizen scientists has found that Wollemi Pines are growing in backyards around the world in different environments. This information can help us protect them in their natural habitat.
An army of conservationists fought last summer’s bushfires. AAP Image/Supplied By NPWS
From Gondwana to the garden
The Wollemi Pine is the poster child for plant conservation. This plant is unusually shaped. Each wild tree has branches with lime-green or grey-green fernlike leaves and many trunks covered with bark that looks like bubbling chocolate. In the wild, they can reach more than 40 meters.
It is part of the family of southern conifers Araucariaceae and has cousins such as the Norfolk Island Pine and Monkey Puzzle Tree. Many of the trees that remain in the wild are found between eucalypt and rainforest, along the ledges of a sandstone canyon.
In the wild, Wollemi Pines can grow up to 40 meters. Heidi Zimmer.
Since the Wollemi Pine was discovered in 1992, the conservation effort has been intensive, with a focus on the wild.
Cultivation was one of the first methods. Horticulturalists from the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan in Sydney have worked out ways to propagate this species so that it can be grown in gardens and enjoyed by the public. This reduces the risk of illegal visits in the wild.
Read more: Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees.
After the Australian Botanic Garden established a basic “insurance population” of plants propagated from the wild trees, some of the first cultivated Wollemi pines were distributed to botanic gardens in Australia and overseas, including in the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
Wollemi Pines were auctioned off to the public in 2005 at a Sotheby’s Auction. They have been sold to nurseries all over the world and are now grown in public and private gardens.
Ex-situ conservation can be important for plants that are rare or have a limited distribution.
This includes Seed Banking, Translocation(establishing new populations in new locations of rare plants), and the cultivation for nursery trade.
Read more: Where the old things are: Australia’s most ancient trees
Enter our I Spy A Wollemi Pine project. Fifteen years after the Wollemi pine became available for sale, our study asks people to report where Wollemi pines are growing in gardens across the world.
The online survey has revealed that the species is found in 27 countries, ranging from Australia to Russia and the UK to Peru.
The UK has reported the tallest trees – up to 7 meters tall, though dwarfed by wild counterparts. Up to date, 987 individuals have provided data on Wollemi Pines.
Wollemi Pines in Coates Wood (United Kingdom). Ellen McHale (c) RBG Kew.
What We Can Learn
Researchers have enjoyed reading comments from participants in surveys, from “Has Survived minus 10 Degrees” to “I love it.”
After the survey, we will analyze the results to determine what factors influence the growth of the species. For example, different soils and climates.
It will give home gardeners gardening tips, but it will also inform future conservation efforts against climate change.
Read more: Bigfoot, the Kraken and night parrots: searching for the mythical or mysterious.
For example, this research will provide information on what environments the Wollemi pine can tolerate. We’re discovering the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on earth this species can survive in.
These data can be used to find new locations for Wollemi Pines. This information may provide clues about the evolution of this species, including how it survived multiple ice ages and other dramatic climate shifts in ancient history.