What with Chris Pratt beating box-office records battling the dinosaurs at Jurassic World, and Canadian palaeontologists finding the 68-million-year-old skull of a previously unknown member of the triceratops family in Alberta, I’ve been thinking about the Wollemi.
The Wollemi pine is our dinosaur-era tree. A fossil of it dating to 90 million years ago has been found, but the species is likely to be considerably older than that, being part of 200-million-year-old Araucariacaeae family.
The Wollemi was famously discovered by a bushwalker in the Blue Mountains National Park in September 1994. A few months later Cathy Offord, a horticultural researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, was presented with 57 seeds and the job of growing something that had never been cultivated before. Her success was essential. Not only were scientists around the world banging the door down to get hold of some of this living botanical fossil, but successful propagation was the key to saving the wild population. For centuries the discovery of rare plants has all too often been followed by their rape and pillage, unintentional and otherwise. The location of the Wollemi community was kept secret in a bid to keep them safe, and the pressure was on.
Offord was successful. Those first plants were harvested for cuttings and a huge propagation project took off that has sent the plant to all corners of the globe, including well outside of its comfort zone. In Canada for instance, keen Wollemi supporters plant the tree each spring, and dig it up again at the end of autumn to spend the winter safely indoors.
Twenty years later Offord is still studying the Wollemi, at work, and at home.She grows her Wollemi in a pot on the back deck. They are easy to keep in a pot and can be grown indoors. Every few years Offord says she ‘knocks the top off’, a pruning technique that is keeping it at 2.5m, just right for an imposing Christmas tree. Even without the seasonal baubles, the Wollemi is a handsome plant. It looks a bit like a cycad that decided it wanted to be a pine tree, and as the leaves don’t all point in the same direction it has a kind of woolly informality. The bubbly bark has been described by some as Coco Pops,and others as boiling chocolate.
Offord’s advice on Wollemi pot-culture is to find a cool spot and keep them out of the summer sun. “They don’t like to be in full sun when they’re young, though they are sun-hardy when they’re mature. They prefer cool temperatures, so actually the best ones I’ve seen growing are in the UK. I water mine and fertilise it with a regular fertiliser for potted plants.”
No one knows how long the plant will live in cultivation, but some of the 100 individuals in the wild are between 500 and 1000 years old, so there’s a chance a potted Wollemi could become a family heirloom. In the meantime it’s Jurassic World, without the wildlife.
The pictures in this post aren’t my own but were supplied by the Royal Botanic Garden.