Bodnant Garden home to new metacollection of Wollemi pine

Critically endangered, Wollemi pines date back to the time of the dinosaurs and restricted to fewer than 100 trees in Wollemi National Park, Australia.

Wollemi Pine at Wakehurst Place
By AndyScott - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Wollemia nobilis is an evergreen coniferous tree with light green young needle-like leaves which become yellowish-dark green colour with age. The bark has a rough surface and branches bear both male and female cones. The female cones appear on higher branches and are much more rounded than the narrow male cones. Seeds are paper thin, winged, and brown.

It was thought Wollemi pines had become extinct between 70 and 90 million years ago until a chance discovery in 1994, when a small group of living trees was found growing in a remote gorge in the Wollemi National Park in New South Wales. This moment is considered one of the greatest botanical discoveries of our time. The tree species is now classified as critically endangered on the IUCN’s red list, an important indicator of the world’s biodiversity which sets out the risks of extinction for plant and animal species.

The National Trust’s Bodnant Garden in North Wales, is joining together with Forestry England to plant critically endangered Wollemi pine trees as part of the first global metacollection to save the iconic species from extinction and help protect the biodiversity of wild trees. Growing the trees worldwide in this way preserves the widest range of genetic diversity found in the wild population and aims to safeguard Wollemi pines from becoming extinct.

Recent advances in genetic techniques have enabled Australian plant science and conservation experts to identify and breed genetically diverse Wollemi pines. For the first time, these genetically diverse collections of saplings are being made available to botanic gardens across the world.

More than 170 young Wollemi pine trees were grown by Botanic Gardens of Sydney and shipped from Australia, with the first six planted at Bedgebury National Pinetum at the end of October. The remaining trees are being distributed to gardens across the UK and Europe, including Bodnant.

Since its discovery, there has been a concerted effort to insure the species against the loss of the remaining wild trees, with fewer than 100 left growing in a gorge 150 kilometres from Sydney. These wild trees are increasingly vulnerable to threats from diseases and wildfires and narrowly escaped being destroyed by wildfires in 2019-2020 which burnt more than 10 million hectares of land in eastern Australia.

Ned Lomax, Head Gardener at Bodnant Garden said, “Bodnant Garden is known for collecting and cultivating rare plants from around the world and is famed, amongst other things, for its extensive conifer collection which includes numerous UK and Welsh champion trees. Due to pressures from climate change, development and deforestation, many of these trees are now endangered in the wild and so our plants, originally grown for ornamental effect, have become highly important for their conservation value. Replicating the gorge that Wollemi pines enjoy in the wild is not straightforward in a garden setting. To plant the trees, the Bodnant Garden team carefully abseiled down the steep banks of the Dell where its sheltered, humid conditions should echo the gorge habitats that the pines enjoy in their natural range”.

Lomax continued: “These trees originate from sheltered, humid and cool gorges in New South Wales, Australia and it’s our hope that Bodnant Garden here in North Wales, with its similar climate, can prove to be a real Welsh home-from-home. We’re delighted to be able to play our small part.”

The metacollection will be shared by separate organisations but cared for collaboratively to research and conserve the species for the future. Teams from Forestry England, Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the garden team from Bodnant Garden itself will continue to monitor the trees as they grow and mature.

Working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s International Conifer Conservation Programme, the Trust has planted over 300 conifers which are endangered in the wild because of factors including habitat degradation, illegal cutting, fire and climate change. These include Cedrus libani (Cedar of Lebanon), now known in no more than 10 locations in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey; critically endangered Torreya taxifolia (Florida Torreya), which has declined by an estimated 98% over the last three generations; and Podocarpus salignus (willow-leaf podocarp), endemic to Chile, where in most areas there are no suitable habitats remaining.

The Trust also works to protect threatened native Sorbus species, including rare Sorbus cheddarensis, known only in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

Alison Crook, the National Trust’s Plant Collections Curator, said: “The parks and gardens we care for have a long history of introducing new plant species and we’ve continued to do this in recent decades. Through this kind of work, we are playing our part in securing a future not just for UK biodiversity, but for biodiversity around the world.”