Australia's Jurassic tree is returned to the world

To ensure its survival, Australian conservationists have propagated large numbers and plan to auction the next generation at Sotheby's later this month, with species being touted as the latest must-have garden accessory.

The Wollemi was known only from fossil records until David Noble, a park ranger, found the small stand in the Blue Mountains, 125 miles (200km) west of Sydney, in 1994. He did not recognise them and took home a branch to show colleagues.

His discovery caused a scientific sensation, being called the botanical find of the century. The species had been thought extinct for at least two million years.

The director of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, Professor Carrick Chambers, said at the time that it was "the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth".

With just 100 specimens in the wild, the Wollemi is one of the world's rarest tree species. It is also one of the oldest, with origins that date back 200 million years. Now several hundred saplings, grown from cuttings taken from the original plants, are to be auctioned to fund future conservation efforts.

The first generation cultivated trees were presented yesterday at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Up to six years old and 2.5m (8ft) high, they are being sold with authentication certificates detailing their provenance, as well as care instructions. In the wild, they grow to up to 40 metres high, with a trunk diameter of more than a metre.

The auction also aims to help conserve the species. Horticulturalists believe that having Wollemi pines in homes, parks and gardens is one of the best forms of insurance against loss in the wild.

The chairman of Sotheby's Australia, Justin Millar, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the pines were "among the most exciting things I've ever sold". He said international collectors were likely to join the bidding. "There's been a lot of interest from Germany and the United Kingdom, certainly Japan, America."

The pines were found growing in a rainforest gorge surrounded by mountains and undisturbed forest. Their exact location has been kept secret, to shield them from thieves and trophy hunters. No roads lead to the area, and even scientists are blindfolded when flown into the site by helicopter.

Propagated plants are already on display around Australia and abroad, including the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and at Kew in London. The pines are expected to fetch from £640 apiece, to £22,000 for a collection of trees. Next year they will be widely available as pot plants.

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