Jurassic bark: the tree that grew in the age of dinosaurs comes to Kew

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It is what the dinosaurs would have brushed against, sheltered under or hidden behind. Scratched themselves on, maybe. Knocked over carelessly. Maybe even munched. It is the Wollemi pine, a tree species that was going strong when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and survives today. And now it has come to Kew.

It is what the dinosaurs would have brushed against, sheltered under or hidden behind. Scratched themselves on, maybe. Knocked over carelessly. Maybe even munched. It is the Wollemi pine, a tree species that was going strong when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and survives today. And now it has come to Kew.

The Royal Botanic Gardens has imported some of these living fossils, whose discovery in a remote Australian canyon more than a decade ago was the most remarkable botanical find of the 20th century. Kew Gardens will put the Wollemi pine on display, and it intends next year to offer Wollemi pine cuttings for sale.

The discovery of this tree was regarded as the botanical equivalent of finding a small velociraptor or proceratops still alive on earth. It was known from fossils 91 million years old, and it is presumed to have flourished further back still, perhaps 200 million years ago on the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana, where it is thought to have formed vast forests. The fossil records ended two million years ago and it was long presumed to be extinct.

But in 1994 a young field officer from the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, David Noble, stumbled upon a small group of the trees while exploring unknown canyons in the Wollemi wilderness area, in the Blue Mountains about 70 miles north-west of Sydney. They were spindly blue-green conifers, with two ranks of needle-like leaves along the branches, and bark with a strange bubbly appearance, which reminded Mr Noble of the breakfast cereal Coco-Pops. He had no idea what they were, other than that they were not recognisable.

When he took samples to botanical experts, it was quickly realised that Wollemia nobilis, as it was named, was new to science, and eventually it was placed in a genus all of its own in the Araucariaceae, or the monkey-puzzle tree family.

Later scientists realised that it was identical to ancient fossils that were already familiar, and the picture was complete.

The Wollemi pine had survived because of the remoteness of its location, in the cluster of 500 steep-sided, barely accessible canyons in the Wollemi national park, some so impenetrable it is thought they have never been visited by humans. In the canyon's dark, wet interior the trees were untouched by climate change, by 60,000 years of aboriginal farming and by two centuries of farming by white settlers.

But there are few of them. "There are only about 40 trees in the wild," said Tony Kirkham, head of the Kew arboretum - the gardens' own collection of more than 14,000 trees - and the man in charge of the Wollemi pine project.

The wild trees are fiercely protected, with their site kept secret and a two-year prison sentence threatened for anyone who harms them. The intention of the national park service is that only bona fide researchers will be allowed to visit them.

But Australia has licensed a propagation programme to produce thousands of cuttings for sale, as this will provide funds for conservation, and lessen the risk from collectors.

Kew has taken possession of several of these offshoots which are not yet on display, but at the weekend Mr Kirkham, who is off to Sydney in a few days for more talks on the project with Australian colleagues, gave The Independent an exclusive preview. I can report that they are slightly curious in appearance: they resemble nothing so much as old-fashioned artificial Christmas trees, the sort with bendable arms that you used to get out of the back of the cupboard in December and screw into a wooden base.

Mr Kirkham added: "I think they might well end up as the typical Australian Christmas tree in years to come."

Over the next few months Kew and its Sussex out-station, Wakehurst Place, will be giving them hardiness trials to see how they stand up to the rigours of the British climate. But in their native environment they are subject to temperatures ranging from -5C to +45C so it is thought unlikely they will have problems.

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