Firefighter working to save the Wollemi pine. Photo: Sydney Morning Herald
The horrible brushfires racing through Australia in late 2019/early 2020 very nearly wiped out the last stand of an iconic tree: the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). However, government officials announced on January 15, 2020, that it had been saved in extremis by a team of firefighters on a secret government mission.
There are fewer than 200 trees left of this critically endangered species, all found in a single narrow gorge in a remote section of Wollemi National Park, New South Wales, some 150 km (93 miles) northwest of Sydney.
The plant has been fully protected ever since shortly after it was first discovered in 1994 by a team led by David Noble (the botanical name Wollemia nobilis honors both the park where it is found and its discoverer). Considered a living fossil, it can be traced back some 200 million years when similar species were abundant throughout Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. The genus has been in decline over the last 40 million years until only this one last species in this one last stand was left.
The Wollemi pine is not a true pine (Pinus spp., from the family Pinaceae), but from an entirely different family of conifers: the Araucariaceae and is thus more closely related to the popular houseplant called Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). With its long, flat needles arranged in two to four flattened rows, it really looks nothing like any plant you’ve ever seen. It’s a multitrunked tree, reaching from 25 to 40 m (82 to 131 feet) in height, abundantly branching from dormant buds on its very rough and knobbly trunk.
Saving a Relic Species
To protect the tree in the wild, its location had been kept secret and only a handful of people were allowed to visit the site, always wearing protective clothing so as not to accidentally introduce any harmful insects or microbes. (This, after a scare in 2005 when a pathogen, Phytopthora cinnamomi, was observed in the native population, apparently brought in by unauthorized foot traffic.) However, when government officials realized the Gospers Mountain mega fire was racing towards the gorge shortly after Christmas in 2019, they sprang into action.
Air tankers applied fire retardant to surrounding forest. Helicopters dropped firefighters into the gorge where they installed an irrigation system to increase the moisture content of the soil. All participants were sworn to absolute secrecy as to the exact location. Then they were taken out for their own safety.
For four days, there was so much smoke that no one knew whether the trees had survived. When the smoke finally cleared, though, it was clear that the stand was in fairly good shape, even though most of 5,000 km2 (1,900 sq. mile) Wollemi National Park is now little more than ash and rubble. Two trees are apparently dead, some sustained minor injury, but most are perfectly intact.
Now Grown Worldwide
Even had the fire destroyed the last grove of Wollemi pines, that would not have been the end of the tree, as backup trees are now available. The Wollemi pine grows readily from cuttings and these have been shared with botanical gardens all over the world. Seed too has proved viable. In fact, some nurseries now offer seeds or trees to home gardeners, although the tree is still very rare and usually quite expensive. It turns out the Wollemi pine is actually easy to grow, adapted to full sun or, preferably, partial shade in moist, acidic soils, although not very hardy (USDA hardiness zones 9 to 11).
Wollemi National Park now faces decades of slow recovery. Millions of trees and millions of animals have been lost. Australian forests are largely adapted to fire, which is part of their natural cycle in most areas, but increasing drought thought to be caused by climate change threatens their ability to recuperate. Let’s hope Australia can count on a few years of good rains to allow Ma Nature to do her job.
And wise gardeners should also take this as a warning that climate is real and we all have to change our habits.