In 1994, a grove of fewer than 100 Wollemi Pines (Wollemia nobilis), known only from fossil records and presumed extinct for over 2 million years, was discovered in a deep gorge in the Blue Mountains just 200km west of Sydney, Australia.
To the botanic world, its resurrection from extinction was as dramatic as suddenly finding a dinosaur roaming the local park!
It is thought that the Wollemi Pines were able to survive many geological eras sheltered in a single, isolated rainforest gorge, where conditions were suitably humid to act as a buffer to fluctuating climate change. Due to the steep, inaccessible nature of this rainforest gorge, some of the earliest seed and cuttings were collected by a botanist from the Botanic Garden in Sydney while precariously dangling from a helicopter.
Two Wollemi Pines have been potted into large planters flanking the façade to Continents Apart, a glasshouse display exploring aspects of the Australian flora. A specimen has also been planted out close to another rediscovered fossil, the Dawn Redwood.
The Wollemi has unusual pendulous foliage with light apple-green growing tips in spring, contrasting the dark blue-green of the mature foliage. Uniquely, the leaves are arranged in two ranks along the branches, and the bark is very distinctive, resembling bubbling hot chocolate. In winter, the tree produces ‘polar caps’, white waxy coatings striped with ruby pink to protect the growing buds. Unusually for a conifer, the Wollemi Pine has a habit of developing multiple stems, which may have evolved as a defence against drought, fire or rock fall in the steep canyons of its natural habitat. We hope this habit will be the salvation of the specimen planted out near the Dawn Redwood, as it suffered damage when a visitor toppled into the young specimen.
The Wollemi is a rare and unusual addition to our tree collection and there is a good chance it will survive outdoors in Cambridge. It is exciting to be helping repopulate these living fossils by trialling the cultivation prospects of the Wollemi Pine in East Anglia. Cultivation of the Wollemi Pine in gardens and parks is the best form of insurance, should loss of its natural habitat lead to extinction in nature.