Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Wollemi Pine; A Prehistoric Plant With a Remarkable Story

Wollemi Pine 45/60cm 3ltr

Every year, hundreds of new plant species are described as new to science. Most are of interest only to specialists and have no commercial significance. 

The discovery of the Wollemi pine in Australia in 1995 was a sensation. The genus Wollemia was formally described a year later with W. nobilis as its only species. The tree is so different from all other known conifers that it did not sit comfortably in any existing genus and so needed a new one to be created.

It belongs to an ancient family of conifers called Araucariaceae which previously comprised only two genera. There is Araucaria, famous for the species A. araucana that is commonly known as the ‘Monkey Puzzle’ and is frequently planted in British gardens. The other is Agathis, a massive tree from New Zealand. Trees of the Araucariaceae were much more widespread in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, sharing their environment with dinosaurs, but are now restricted to the southern hemisphere. There are fossil records of Wollemia dating back more than 100 million years.

It is truly amazing that a tree that can grow to 40 metres tall should have escaped detection until 1995. The reason is that only a small relict population, comprising less than 100 trees, survived in a few canyons in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia. The difficulty of access to the habitat accounts for its late discovery.

Since Wollemia was discovered, there has been an effective programme of propagation to make the plant available to cultivators around the world and it is now planted in many botanical gardens. It is also available to gardeners, its unique appearance and remarkable story make it a real ‘talking point’. The limited experience of its cultivation suggests that it is tolerant of most well-drained soils and hardy down to -15°C.

Even young specimens in containers are capable of producing cones, both male and female on the same tree. These add to the appeal and help to make Wollemia a suitable candidate for a large pot which can be given some protection in winter by being placed in a glasshouse or conservatory. Container grown plants are available for sale and these can be purchased and placed in a large pot or outside at any time of year. Soil preparation is important so incorporating organic matter and, on heavy soils, some grit will help the tree to establish.

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