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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Jurassic pine 
14th-Jul-2010 03:39 pm

You might overlook this little pine-like tree in Madrid's Royal Botanical Garden, but the big red sign next to the walkway will get your attention. This specimen is part of a special conservation program for the Wallemia nobilis!

The sign informs you:

"This is a species found in the fossil record 90 million years ago. It was believed extinct until, in 1994, a small surviving population was discovered in Australia. An adult individual can reach 40 meters in height and can resist 12º below zero C. An important legislative protection program is underway to save its natural location and to place laboratory-cultivated seedlings in gardens around the world."

Here's how it happened:

In 1994, David Noble, a field officer at Wollemi National Park in New South Wales, went on a Christmas hike in the rainforest with two buddies. As they climbed through a nearly inaccessible area, they found 39 huge, odd trees, and he brought back specimens.

The species turned out to be the sole example of a genus of the family Aarucariaceae that goes back 200 million years and that once probably covered large parts of Gondwana. It was believed extinct.

This was the plant equivalent of discovering a live Tyrannosaurus rex.

Since then, two more stands have been discovered, bringing the wild population to 100, but they're susceptible to mold and natural disasters, so seedlings are being grown and sold to gardens and individuals, with the money going to conservation of the species.

Madrid's Botanical Garden paid 85€ for its little tree and planted it in a shady spot, since the tree doesn't seem to like Spain's hot sun – as far as we know. There's a lot to learn.

You can recognize this tree by its unusual branching: the side branches have no further branching, and they fall off after producing a pine cone. Then another branch develops from its chocolate-brown knobby bark, which is also distinctive to the species.

The exact location of the 100 wild trees is being kept secret to protect them, so the only way to admire a Wollemia nobilis is in gardens. That's exciting enough, like seeing a baby T-rex at a zoo, but if you go to the tree's webpage at http://www.wollemipine.com you will find photos from Wollemi National Park. The mature trees and their environment could not be more beautiful.

Photos are available for download as computer wallpaper at the website, which also has the latest news and links to participating gardens possibly near you.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website: http://www.sue.burke.name

14th-Jul-2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
They're gorgeous, aren't they? The funny thing is that they're in the Blue Mountains, so quite near the most heavily settled region of Australia. The amazing thing is that they were undiscovered for so long.

The climate in the Blue Mountains is a bit wetter than where I live, but otehrwise very similar, which means wollemi pines are very popular garden plants in the ACT. It's very strange, watching its progress from astonishing rarity to common garden plant.
14th-Jul-2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
Madrid's botanists suspect it's too hot and dry here for them -- it's been 100 degrees with 10 to 20 percent humidity this week, and no rain so far or anytime for the rest of this month -- but who knows? They've managed to grow a lush swampy fern garden nearby, so the tree might adapt with a little extra care.

We used to have T-rex dinosaurs here, after all.
15th-Jul-2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Canberra is that hot and that dry and it's a garden tree here - it does cool down overnight in summer though.
17th-Jul-2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
That's amazing. I'm still holding out hope for the T-Rex...well, no, maybe not. A plesiosaur would do. I really want to see a live plesiosaur...
18th-Jul-2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
We'll need a big aquarium. And it will be cool!
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