December 05, 2019 07:29:07
The original wild specimens of the ancient Wollemi pine tree are safe for now as fires which have burnt more than 220,000 hectares continue throughout the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales.
- Officials say the wild Wollemi pine trees in the Blue Mountains are “okay” despite fires burning in the Wollemi National Park
- The locations of the critically endangered trees remain secret since their discovery in 1994
- A citizen science project aims to document the environments where propagated trees are surviving in captivity
The National Parks Wildlife Service “has measures in place to protect the Wollemi pines from fire and they are okay,” a spokesperson from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment told the ABC.
However, the department also noted the trees’ survival “depends very much on their location remaining secret”.
Why so much secrecy?
The Wollemi pine species, Wollemia nobilis, was thought to be long extinct until its discovery by a park ranger in 1994.
Fossil evidence points to the species’ existence over 100 million years ago and some of the surviving adult trees are believed to be over 1,000 years old.
But only a handful of the living fossils, often called ‘dinosaur trees’, are known to exist in the wild today.
Cristopher Brack, Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, said he feared the critically endangered trees run the risk of being contaminated and denuded if they were to be disturbed by humans seeking them out.
“This tree has been isolated from the general population for a long time, so there may be a whole bunch of new root fungus and root pathogens that it’s never come across,” Associate Professor Brack said.
“So even things that we might think are quite general in the population might be enough to kill it.”
Planted far and wide
Associate Professor Brack was involved with establishing the largest single forest of Wollemi pines in the Southern Hemisphere at the National Arboretum in Canberra.
Using cloned stock from the original trees, a substantial number were initially planted at the site but only around 90 plants remain.
“Nobody knew the best planting conditions for the Wollemi so we planted them in a range of areas,” he said.
“But the only areas that survived were in rocky slope areas.”
Associate Professor Brack said an imminent citizen science project, to document the spread of propagated Wollemi pines in captivity, will help researchers better determine the conditions suitable for future plantations.
“If we can find the environmental and weather conditions of those places, we can get this really good map on how successful the Wollemi is in all these different environments,” he said.
Several of the pine’s original cloned offspring were auctioned off by Sotheby’s, with profits going back into the tree’s research, while many plants were sent out with diplomats as gifts to other countries, he said.
Conservation efforts using propagated trees in Australia and overseas, along with commercial sales, will help maintain numbers even if the original specimens are affected by fire.
“We don’t think the species will go extinct now because we have these populations all around the world,” he said.
“But it would be a pity to lose the last natural remnants of them.”
However, there is evidence the original trees have survived fires in the past, according to Dr Maurizio Rossetto, a senior principal research scientist at the National Herbarium of NSW.
“The population appears to have been submitted to fire before, the trunks are black and charred, so it really depends on the intensity of the fire and that impacts the trees and the vegetation surrounding them,” Dr Rossetto said.
Wollemi planting tips
Where to see Wollemi pines:
- Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, NSW
- Mount Annan Botanic Gardens, Sydney, NSW
- Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens, Blue Mountains, NSW
- Taronga Park Zoo Sydney, NSW
- Botanic Gardens, Adelaide and Mt Lofty, SA
- Australian National Botanic Garden, Canberra, ACT
- Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart, Tas
- Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, WA
- Southbank Parklands, Brisbane, Qld
- Roma Street Parkland, Brisbane, Qld
For over 12 years, David Van Berkel has been propagating and distributing Wollemi pines throughout Australia from his business in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges.
He recommends customers avoid planting or re-potting the trees during their dormant period of colder months and also during summer.
“An early spring planting, as the roots start to develop, is the best time to plant in the garden or replant it into another pot,” Mr Van Berkel said.
“Wollemi trees in pots should be placed without saucers to avoid retaining too much moisture.
“You want the moisture to flow through, and same with in-ground planting, you want an elevated spot or a free-draining soil.
“They do like to have some protection from the sun, they can get a little bit yellow if they get too much sun.”
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