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THE OUTDOORS ALMANAC | NATURE

Antique sale

The ancient Wollemi pine will soon have offspring around the world.

November 15, 2005|Veronique de Turenne

AT first, no one knew what it was.

A pine tree like no other growing deep in the Wollemi wilderness, a landscape of steep gorges and sheer sandstone cliffs in Australia's forbidding Blue Mountains. It had multiple trunks up to 130 feet tall, weird bubbly brown bark and fern-like fronds that grew in precise spirals. Scientists' initial elation at the discovery of a new species gave way to astonishment when they realized what they really had: a species thought to have become extinct more than 2 million years ago. The Wollemi pine had persisted through several ice ages and countless natural disasters to outlast the dinosaurs that once fed on it.

Now the "pineosaur" belongs to the world. An auction several weeks ago put 292 plants into the hands of collectors around the globe. Propagated by cuttings from the surviving stand of about 100 trees, the plants sold for about $1,500 each. In all, nearly $800,000 was raised for conservation groups. If all goes according to plan, 100,000 more saplings are on the way. Scientists hope that by cultivating the plants, they are improving the species' chances of survival.

"They learned from their own mistakes," said Kathy Musial, curator of living collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. She was referring to the discovery of the foxtail palm in Australia's Melville National Park in the 1980s.

"Poachers went in and started cutting down the mature palms to grow and sell them," Musial said. "With the Wollemi pine, it was decided to keep it secret and flood the market so there won't be any pressure for collectors to go into the wild to find the trees."

Secrecy around the location of the pines, which contain male and female cones growing on different branches, is absolute. David Noble, the park ranger who discovered the trees in 1994, is one of only a handful of people in the world who knows the location of the rain forest chasm where the living fossils grow. Those fortunate enough to get permission to visit the trees are blindfolded before they are helicoptered in.

"I wasn't able to get to the site," Musial said. "Very few people do. They're keeping the location a big secret."

Soon, the Huntington Gardens and the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden expect to get their own Wollemi pine specimens.

"We expect it'll be very busy around here," Musial said.

To learn more about the history of the trees, go to www.wollemipine.com.

-- Veronique de Turenne

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