Monday, January 15, 2007
Wollemi Pine: University acquires rare plant from dinosaur age
A relic plant that once co-existed with dinosaurs has taken up residence in the University of Wisconsin-Madison botany greenhouses.
Known as the Wollemi pine, the plant was presumed extinct until a "bushwalker" named David Noble discovered it in an Australian national park in 1994. As part of a worldwide effort to conserve and propagate the tree species - one of the oldest and rarest on earth - botany greenhouse director Mo Fayyaz recently purchased a foot-tall Wollemi pine seedling. A limited number of the plants just became available in the United States through National Geographic*.
Fayyaz says the ancient conifer will be used to teach students about topics such as plant diversity, evolution and geography. The discovery of this "living fossil" also underscores the importance of conserving the world's natural areas, he says, which can still hold unexpected treasures.
Before 1994, botanists knew the Wollemi pine only from fossils, the oldest of which date back 90 million years to the age of the dinosaurs. Scientists also believed the tree had gone extinct more than 2 million years ago. Although it has been dubbed a "pine," the plant's closest living relatives are not true pines, but other unusual conifers such as the Norfolk Island pine and monkey puzzle tree.
Fewer than 100 mature Wollemi pines currently exist in the wild, all within the same remote and rugged canyon of the Wollemi National Park near Sydney, Australia, from which the tree gets it name. The tallest pines in the park top 100 feet and some are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.
To aid the plant's continued survival, Fayyaz and his staff eventually plan to propagate their tree through cuttings. Although Fayyaz expects the pine to grow by one to two feet each year, its cultivation is an experiment. "As far as the growth and development of this plant goes, it's all new to us," he says.
The public can view the plant in the UW-Madison botany greenhouses, located in Birge Hall, anytime after Tuesday, Jan. 30. The greenhouses are open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday. During the summer months, Fayyaz may also move the Wollemi pine outside to the Botany Garden.
Original press release (dated January 10, 2007) available from UW-Madison
*From the National Geographic 'Owner's Manual':
"You are now the owner of a tree that is a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs, a miraculous time traveler and one of the greatest living fossils discovered in the twentieth century. The story of your beautiful plant began before the Jurassic Period.
Wollemi pine trees are remarkable and intriguing in the way they grow, and they still surprise the horticulturists who propagate them. This tree will go through many fascinating changes as the seasons pass and as it matures. You can look forward to the formation of the strange ‘polar caps’ and, in time, see its extraordinary bubbly bark as well as variations in its prehistoric foliage..."
A 1999 open access/free paper from the Annals of Botany:
Sexual Reproduction and Early Plant Growth of the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), a Rare and Threatened Australian Conifer
By C. A. Offord et al.
The two known populations of the recently discovered rare and threatened Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis Jones, Hill and Allen) consist of a small number of large multi-stemmed adult trees and small seedlings. Female and male cones are produced on adult trees with pollen release occurring in spring (October-November). Seed cones mature 16-19 months later in late summer and autumn and appear to be produced annually.
Approximately 10% of seed produced in two consecutive years was viable, 25% of which was damaged by animals. Glasshouse studies showed that seed germination at 25 degrees C (day)/16 degrees C (night) proceeded slowly but steadily at approx. 4% per week until, after 6 months, 88% of apparently viable seed had germinated with the remainder of the seed rotting. Growth of potted seedlings in this temperature regime was continuous (after a lag period of 4-6 months) with the monopodial axis growing 0.05-0.25 m in the first year, 0.5-0.6 m in the second year and 0.25-0.35 m in the third year, attaining a total height of 0.8-1.2 m. Multiple orthotropic shoots developed on some plants at this stage, some of which outgrew the primary shoot in height. The diameter of the stem below the cotyledon (just above the soil) grew 3-7 mm in the first year, 10-14 mm in the second and 15-20 mm in the third at which time it was 25-34 mm. The average number of lateral branches produced was five-17 in the first year, 25-36 in the second year and 24–30 in the third year giving a total of 60-77. The establishment of Wollemi Pine in the wild does not appear limited by the inherent viability of seed and potential for early growth of seedlings.
Also of interest:
...The general phenology of the Wollemi pine has been described through field observations (Offord et al. 1999) but the poor seed set of the species in the wild is still unexplained. Studies of embryological and seed development in the laboratory will greatly assist our understanding of reproductive biology in the Wollemi pine. This may impact on the management of the species in the wild and in addition such work will contribute to our understanding of the evolution and taxonomic relationships of this intriguing species.
Visit the Wollemi Pine International website:
"The Botanic Gardens Trust (Sydney) has licensed Wollemi Australia, to propagate and market the Wollemi Pine in Australia and internationally. It was decided in the Wollemi Pine Recovery Plan that in order to protect the wild population, having Wollemi Pines in gardens, homes, and parks throughout the world is a key conservation strategy.
The mission of Wollemi Pine International is to conserve the Wollemi Pine for future generations and to raise awareness of conservation internationally. Through public participation, we will repopulate the Wollemi Pine and return royalties to fund conservation of the Pines in the wild and other threatened and endangered species."
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