the Wollemi Pine

Sydney Morning Herald
Tree Chic
James Woodford

Sydney Morning Herald
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd

MT Annan Botanic Garden - surrounded by rolling fields and new housing developments - is the last place in the world you would expect to find a relic from the age of the dinosaurs being coaxed into life.

Locked away in a laboratory, under tight security, is a cabinet where a living fossil - the Wollemi pine - is being brought into the 20th century.

The similarity to the movie Jurassic Park, in which a scientist unleashes dinosaurs onto a tiny island, is obvious. But for Cathy Offord, whose work may result in the pines - thought to be extinct until late last year -becoming the ultimate pot-plant, the comparison with the mad movie scientist is annoying.

For her, the main goal of her work is not to commercialise the trees but to ensure they survive.

"There was something sinister about the Jurassic Park scientist," says Offord, a horticultural research officer at the gardens near Campbelltown.

"And there is nothing sinister about what we do here."

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Unfortunately, whether she likes it or not, the Jurassic Park comparison is one that will stick - the Wollemi pine is a relic from the age of the dinosaurs and it has captured the imagination of people from around the world.

Until the tree turned up late last year in a virtually inaccessible gorge in the 500,000-hectare wilderness of Wollemi National Park, it had been lost for more than 100 million years and was known only from fossils gathering dust in museums.

At the time of the announcement, Professor Carrick Chambers, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, said: "The discovery is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth."

Now Offord has the responsibility of turning the 20 wild, adult Wollemi pines - the only ones in the world - into thousands or even millions of trees.

If Offord's work succeeds, say the botanists who have seen the tree, the Wollemi pine could become one of the world's most famous and sought after pot and garden plants. That means, more importantly, the tree would never become extinct.

"The conservation of the plant is the No.1 objective of anything that we do," says Offord.

"But having a Wollemi pine in the garden is insurance against loss in the wild."

Early indications that the Wollemi pine will one day tower over suburban backyards or feature in a lounge room are positive - seeds collected from the wild have grown roots, cloning techniques have reached their halfway point and cuttings have sprouted. Soon, there may be more juvenile Wollemi pines living in the garden's laboratory than in the wild.

Every scientist involved in the Wollemi pine project says the discovery of the tree, and the research implications of a completely new genus within a stone's throw of Sydney, is the most important work of their career.

The Royal Botanic Gardens has two main parallel research programs investigating the pines. One team is led by Offord and is responsible for propagation; the other is led by Mr Ken Hill, an expert on Australian pine trees and a senior botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Hill's work will result in detailed knowledge of the tree's anatomy.

The ground rules for all the scientists are strict. The trees must not be damaged and, because so few of them exist, a bare minimum of seeds and other material for propagation can be collected. Everything that goes into the grove of wild Wollemi pines must be sterilised against any fungi, including the soles of the specimen collectors' shoes.

The toughest rule is that even though Offord will be working on the propagation program for at least five years, she is not allowed to see the trees in the wild. Hill has seen the trees once and will be unlikely to see them again this year.

The site where the trees are growing is incredibly sensitive to disturbance. Authorities fear that unregulated visits to the trees may lead to the destruction of seedlings or the introduction of fungal diseases that may result in their death.

"I am just happy knowing they are there," says Offord.

Almost all of the material used by the scientists was collected in a recent trip that reached the remote gorge in the National Parks and Wildlife Service helicopter. The team that went in was as small as possible - only the most senior and directly involved personnel were invited.

Seeds will probably not be commercially viable for several decades because there are not enough seeds in the gorge to remove them in large quantities without jeopardising the wild population. And trees grown in the laboratory will probably not produce seed for up to two decades.

SEEDS are almost impossible to obtain because they are up to 40 metres off the ground. Winching a seed collector from a hovering helicopter was one way that was used to collect the seeds. But it was nerve-racking for scientists, who could easily imagine the reaction of the world if the helicopter crashed and one of the trees was damaged, or the whole grove was set alight.

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A special hot air balloon from the US is another seed collection option. It would allow scientists to float above the canopy of the rainforest, but probably will not be purchased because it also poses an unacceptable fire risk, says Professor Chambers.

The real hope for mass propogation lies with the cloning technique, known as tissue culture. Tissue culture requires only minute amounts of material - as little as a few cells.

These tiny pieces of the tree are put into test tubes with a special gel. If the scientists want the piece to grow roots, they add a special root hormone. If they want leaves or branches they add other hormones.

But the hormone the scientists will be looking for the hardest will be the one that allows the piece of pine to explosively reproduce, and, if this technique can be mastered, millions of the trees could be produced annually.

Offord's team will be trying to find the perfect combination of the six hormones that horticulturalists use to start this growth.

In just four months, Offord's team has made remarkable progress. Compared with some other Australian native plants, the Wollemi pine appears to be responding to all of the propagation techniques Offord's team has tried.

Her work might not be sinister, but it is strange. It has also provoked unprecedented secrecy and security. The arrangements are more fitting for the protection of gold bars than pine trees.

The garden's staff refuse to reveal exactly how much Wollemi pine material they have at Mt Annan. The greenhouse, where the whole collection is being painstakingly nurtured, is strictly off limits and protected by tight security.

And the scientists are only prepared to bring out bits and pieces for show. Though only a handful of people have seen the trees, all of them are stunned by its prehistoric beauty and predict that it will be a sensation when it is made available to the nursery industry.

"It will one day make a most superb pot specimen and a wonderful garden specimen," says Professor Chambers.

Botanists predict that it should be a good house plant because other similar species survive well in pots for several years and do not grow too big when contained.

The Royal Botanic Gardens and the National Parks and Wildlife Service already have enough inquiries to fill a book - from nurseries, scientists and ordinary people around the world.

THE biggest problem the scientists now have is trying to keep people patient. Even after the propagation techniques have been perfected it will be at least five years before large enough quantities of the tree have been grown to allow them to be sold commercially.

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Every step is painstakingly slow. Before Offord started work, she spent a week in the bowels of the Sydney University library reading every scrap of literature she could find on pine trees. Before the Botanic Garden's scientist went into the wild gorge to collect material for propagation, Offord spent a full day briefing him on all the information that the propagating team would need to know about the trees - exactly where it was growing, the conditions it seemed to require and the structure of any new growth.

To get just 20 of the cuttings to start to grow in the tissue culture, Offord's assistant, Ms Joanne Tyler, set 500 pieces into test tubes.

The cuttings in the test tubes look like miniature Christmas trees locked in a glass cage. The world of propagated Wollemi pines is very different from the rainforest, where they have sheltered for millions of years while ice ages have come and gone.

The Mt Annan Wollemi pines are growing in a sterile laboratory and every stage of their development will be controlled and assisted with synthetic hormones. In the wild, the pines tower above a crystal-clear creek and are protected by cliffs that have stopped all but the wildest fires from destroying them.

The Mt Annan work is important enough that holidays have been cancelled, extra staff have been employed and the gardens are negotiating with corporate sponsors in the hope that research funding can be obtained.

THE project is widely recognised as one of the most sensitive presently being managed by conservation authorities. There is a fear that collectors or the curious could enter the gorge where the stand of pines are found and damage the site - its exact location is still a secret.

By propagating the tree it is hoped that pressure will be taken off the wild population.

The Royal Botanic Gardens has had some worrying inquiries from nurseries. One operator recently demanded that the gardens tell him where the trees were growing because "he wanted to make some money from these things".

The unit Offord runs has been operating for six years and, until the Wollemi pine was discovered, her work was almost unknown to the public.

Yet the unit has had successes with a huge range of endangered and difficult-to-propagate plants, including waratahs, Australian daisies and a host of plants that are so rare they have never been given a common name.

Offord predicts that another potential money-spinner will be the flannel flower. The Rural Industry Research Development Corporation and the Royal Botanic Gardens Trust have given $100,000 to Offord's unit so that the flower can be developed. Currently, the flannel flower grows only in the wild and, because it cannot presently be propagated, florists can only get the flowers from collectors who are licensed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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Apart from its popularity in Australia, Offord says, the flannel flower can be a huge hit overseas.

"The Japanese like flannel flowers. They like the colours, they like the shape and they like the soft velvety foliage," she says.

Australian plants have taken such a hammering since Europeans arrived that many are now on the brink of extinction. In the same way that captive breeding programs may be the only hope for many wild animals, scientific mass production by cloning and other special horticultural techniques may be the only hope for many endangered plants.

"I think one of the fundamental responsibilities of serious botanic gardens such as Sydney," says Professor Chambers, "is to do everything we can to save species threatened with extinction."

Australia has 25,000 native plants. Professor Chambers says few, in spite of their beauty, have been used commercially.

The Wollemi pine has been one of the most important botanical discoveries in the world this century, he says, and it has the potential to generate huge world interest in Australia's flora.

"It's very exciting," he says.

* Feedback on Agenda issues can be sent to editor Lauren Martin via the post or the Internet. E-mail to


  1. Shoot cut from plant
  2. Shoot trimmed of foliage
  3. Washed and cleaned
  4. Growth hormones added
  5. Clones mulitply
  6. Plants harden and acclimatise
  7. Transferred to containers or planted

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