The Wollemi pine was flourishing on what is now the continent of Australia some 65 million years ago at the time of the great extinction that brought ruin to the age of dinosaurs. For the next 30 million years or so, these beautiful pines covered Australia as it ever so slowly drifted toward the equator. Then, for reasons time has forgotten, the tree began to disappear. History became legend. Legend became myth. The fossil record indicates that around 2 million years ago, the tree simply vanished into the oblivion of extinction. Then about 26 years ago in September of 1994, a group of hikers discovered a remnant grove of these trees in Wollemi National Park just 120 miles from Sydney, Australia. The park is a protected wilderness area and is part of the Greater Blue Mountains. The exact location of the canyon where some 100 Wollemi pines still live is shrouded in secrecy to protect this fragile population.
Early last summer while touring the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline, Washington, our tour guide and friend Richie Steffen showed us a grove of Wollemia nobilis in the lower garden. The Miller Garden was one of several botanical gardens around the U.S. that received or purchased some of these trees in the early 2000s to create populations of the tree and save it from extinction. These initial trees were grown by Iseli Nursery in Oregon for the National Geographic Society, who sold them for $95 each as a fundraiser for the preservation of the Wollemi pine in the wild. The trees in the Miller Garden look healthy and are growing well in the coastal climate of the Puget Sound. In its native habitat, the tree might see temperatures as low as 23° F in winter and as well over 100° F in summer. However, there is wide speculation and evidence that the Wollemi pine can survive temperatures even colder, perhaps as low as 11° F.
I’m fascinated by the prospect of growing this “living fossil” in my garden. However, they are very difficult to find in commercial horticulture. Seed from the source trees in nigh impossible to get and is as yet unavailable from sources outside Australia. It can be vegetatively propagated, but again, sources of cutting stock are very rare. Notwithstanding these hurdles, I hope some reading this from among the horticulture community take it upon themselves to grow these trees. There certainly is a market for them, and an even greater goal of helping to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
Mark Leichty is the Director of Business Development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery near Portland. He is a certified plant geek who enjoys visiting beautiful gardens and garden centers searching for rare and unique plants to satisfy his plant lust. firstname.lastname@example.org