Jurassic bark: The hot new buy at your garden centre this summer
Wollemi pine, 200 million years old and going on sale for the first time ever
Sunday 26 March 2006
Trees from the days of the dinosaurs, long presumed extinct, will soon be grown in Britain's gardens in an extraordinary bid the save the species.
Hundreds of Wollemi pine, nicknamed "Jurassic bark", will be delivered to homes across the country next month, available to the public for the first time anywhere in the world.
The trees went on sale last week after trials at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew found that they could withstand a British winter.
Fewer than 100 of the prehistoric pines survive in the wild, and horticulturalists are hoping that gardeners will help stop the species dying out for good as they become the fashionable tree to have in your garden.
The Wollemi pine dates back 200 million years. It was rediscovered 12 years ago in a remote canyon in the Blue Mountains north-west of Sydney, Australia, having been considered extinct for two million years.
It is now in danger of disappearing altogether. Its exact whereabouts in the wild remain a closely guarded secret, with a two-year prison sentence threatened for anyone who disturbs the habitat.
Plans have been drawn up to increase the level of protection by having it declared a critical habitat by the Australian government amid fears that it is only a matter of time before the location becomes known.
Fifteen trees were sent to Kew Gardens in west London last year, to see how they would cope in the UK climate. The trees were last week judged to have passed their hardiness trials without any ill effects.
Horticulturalists are now hoping that sales of the tree will take the pressure off the tiny wild population. Kew Gardens will be stocking the plants from August. They are already available online at www.wollemipine.co.uk and are priced from £97 each, with profits from sales going towards plant conservation projects.
Gardeners are already rushing to buy them, and Britain's sole licensed grower, Kernock Park Plants, is being inundated with requests from garden centres that want to sell the trees.
The tree has several unique features, with two ranks of leaves along its branches, a bark that looks like bubbling chocolate and a habit of shedding whole branches rather than individual leaves.
It behaves differently from other trees in a number of ways. It is, for example, self-coppicing, able to put out roots from its base and grow new trunks simultaneously.
Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, said: "This is one of the few surviving species from the time of the dinosaurs and has really captured people's imagination."
John Stokes of the Tree Council, told The Independent on Sunday: "Not only is this tree beautiful and botanically curious, but it is also very rare and people will now be able to grow it in their back garden.
"This has generated unprecedented excitement. I have never known anything like it."
Although the low-maintenance plant can be kept in a pot, the hardy Wollemi pine is an ideal tree for large gardens and parklands and can grow over 40 metres high with dozens of trunks.
David Fagan, a 68-year-old tree enthusiast from Nottingham, will be one of the first people to get one of the 10,000 pines that have been cultivated in the UK.
"This is harking back to Victorian times when plant hunters went tripping over the Himalayas to bring back rare plants," he said. "I like the idea that this tree somehow survived for millions of years when everything else was falling apart around it. We'll just have to wait and see whether it will survive suburban squirrels."
With so little known about it, mystery continues to surround the Wollemi pine. A cult following has sprung up around it and tens of thousands have already joined a waiting list to get hold of one, signing up to the tree's own fan club, many of whose members are from the UK.
In Australia, hundreds of thousands of trees are being grown to satisfy the international demand. They will be officially launched there this week, and could soon replace the eucalyptus in the national affections.
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