How Australia’s ancient tree went around the world

Many nicknamed their trees Wolly.

“The Wollemi pines are a bit like the koalas of the plant world. Both are critically endangered,” said Offord, head of Australian PlantBank research and senior senior research scientist at Sydney Botanic Gardens.

An NPWS firefighter looks up at one of the old wollemi pine trees he was sent to protect.

An NPWS firefighter looks up at one of the old wollemi pine trees he was sent to protect.

Since their discovery in the wild, the natural habitat of the wollemi pine has been threatened by bushfires and fungi. The new research says that successful conservation depends on the success of these genetically diverse and globally dispersed populations of the wollemi pine.

When the answers came back, Zimmer couldn’t quite believe where they were grown. “I saw a speck in the sea, and then we zoomed in, it was in Hawaii, and then another one appeared in Madeira,” Zimmer said.

Offord and Zimmer said the Wollemi pines are a bit like Goldilocks. “They don’t like it too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry,” said Zimmer, a researcher at the Australian National Herbarium, a joint venture between Parks Australia and CSIRO.

They thrive best in temperate climates and grow taller in gardens where the average rainfall is 933mm.

There were big temperature differences where they were grown. “It was hottest in New Delhi and coldest in Sammamish, Washington,” Zimmer said.

Many were grown in pots and do best in loamy soil. The trees found in gardens were between 10 centimeters and 15 meters tall, less than half the height of the mature trees in the wild.

Most were only a meter or two tall, according to the newspaper ‘Home gardens help preserve endangered Wollemi pine’, published on July 31. Plants, people and planet.


When the wollemi pines were discovered, Offord said there were fears the public would try to find specimens growing in the wild. “Our biggest concern was that people would go into wild areas and harvest there. There are so few there that they can’t stand the foot traffic.”

To reduce this risk, the trees have been cloned by scientists since 2005 and grown for sale to help conserve the species through cultivation.

Some people found it easy to grow, others failed. At the Wollemi Pine Preservation Group, growers talked about their pines developing a “snow cap,” which made Zimmer laugh. They referred to a waxy growth that protects young shoots.

A member in France was struggling with how to prune a pine tree that was taller than the surrounding houses. Others struggled with a few diseased pines in pots.


Up near the Zig Zag Railroad in the Blue Mountains, gardener Bill Grattan said he only watered his five wollemi pines once when he planted them 18 years ago.

“They’re tough old guys,” said Grattan, who also runs Bay Tree Nursery. Its wollemi pines have survived the snow and a bushfire so hot it melted plastic garden trays near the roots of one pine. Grattan stands by the grave of his old dog Roger and says the climate he lives in seems to suit them quite well.

Zimmer said she killed her plant for not watering it during a hot summer. “I assume you will report this,” she said. In fairness, it must be said that she had a newborn son at the time.

Offord’s wollemi pines are thriving in their small suburban Sydney garden.

The scientists say they tapped just a few of the many wollemi pine lovers around the world.

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Justin Scaccy

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