"And there were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery."
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Kahn

"Living" Paleobotany

From left (five green trees in foreground): Sugar Pine, Ponderosa Pine,
Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar -- Alder Springs Unit

There are two fascinating and favorite stories about living "fossil trees," which have been widely publicised and often repeated. Much detailed information is available on many easily found websites, so these two narratives will be brief:

(A) Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Rewood)

This tree was described from Japanese fossils by Dr. Shigeru Miki, professor of botany at Osaka City University in 1941. There were well known fossil redwoods from 20 million to 100 million years ago, found widely throughout the northern hemisphere from as far north as Spitsbergen Greeland and artic islands of Canada and extending south into Alaska, Western Canada and western U.S. and also present in Europe, Russia and eastern China. It was believed that all of these were the same tree as the California Coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens.

Dr. Miki noted that his material had opposite arrangement of shoots, needles and cone scales, whereas Sequoia sempervirens had an alternate, spiral arrangement. Also his material had cones attached to the end of naked stalks instead of leaf-bearing stalks. He proposed the genus name Metasequoia (after sequoia) and it is now known that the far northern, Russian, eastern China and Japan and some of the western U.S. fossils are Metasequoia, although true Sequoia fossils from this time are present in Europe, western US (mixed) and eastern China-Japan (mixed).

In 1944, Tsang Wang, a forester with the central bureau of forest research in China, found a large tree on temple grounds near a the village of Mo-tao-chi in Sichuan Province (central China). This tree was unknown to him, so he took a specimen to Dr. W.C. Cheng, professor at National Central University in Nanjing, who was also puzzled. So the samples ended up in the hands of Dr. H. H. Hu, director of the Fan Memorial Institute in Beijing and finally Dr. E.D. Merrill, former director of the Arnold Institute in Boston. It was confirmed that the "temple tree" at Mo-tao-chi was indeed the" living fossil" of the tree described 3 years earlier by Dr. Miki. Seeds were sent to and initially distributed by the Arnold Arboretum in Januiary 1948.

In the winter of 1948 Dr. Ralph W. Chaney, Professor Emeritus at the University of California and Milton Silverman, science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, traveled to central China and found a grove of Dawn Redwwod near Chongqing. The largest of the indigenous Dawn Redwood trees reach 115 feet tall and up to 7 feet chest-height diameter.

Ultimately it was found that the present day natural distribution of the Dawn Redwood was confined to a small area of Sichuan and Hubei Provinces. But, in keeping with its ancient wide distribution, this tree has proved to be widely adaptable and rapid growing. It is now thriving in a many locations throughout the world and it is estimated that this tree will reach 150 feet in ideal locations.

Pictures of Dawn Redwood can be found on many websites, including: http://daphne.palomar.edu/wayne/ww0803.htm#dawn and there is a picture of a 16 year old Metasequoia glyptostroboides in File "#39.SWMO Conifers (non-pine)" at this website. Various search engines seeking the name "Metasequoia" will find many more pictures.

Dr. Miki missed one detail in his careful description in 1941. He didn't realise that Metasequoia was deciduous. When fossils come to life, there is always much more to be learned!

(B) Wollemia nobilis ("Wollemi Pine")

In August 1994, a young park ranger named David Noble was hiking in the Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains, about 150 km. northeast of Sydney, Australia. He was in search of slot canyons and had entered a gorge surrounded by high sandstone cliffs. As he looked down into a shallow creek, he saw an unfamiliar branch and looked up and saw he was in a grove (39 trees) of odd-looking, tall (30 meter or so) trees. He took a specimen back home with him and, still unable to identify it, he showed it to Wyn Jones, Senior Naturalist with the NSW National parks and Wildlife Service. Wyn and botanist Jan Allen searched diligently for the identity of this tree, finally concluding that it a new species, in the Araucaceae family. Wollemia is now the third genus (in addition to Araucaria and Agathis) in this family.

Multiple research and propagation efforts are now underway at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and The Mount Annan Botanic Garden in Narellan. The tree has now been propagated from seeds, cuttings and tissue culture. Tissue culture which uses a small amount of material in producing many new trees, offers the promise of relatively rapid availabliity of these trees (each will be an exact clone of the parent) through out the world and commercial availability (no doubt at initially at high prices) is anticipated within 5 to 6 years of the discovery. The Royal Botanic Gardens has already published a call for bids on the first commercial releases (with dollar signs in their eyes). Commercial availability will undoubtedly reduce poaching pressure at the initial discovery site. It is now known that there are two groves of the Wollemi Pine about 1.5 km. apart and, although the exact site location has been kept secret, unauthorized visits have already occurred.

Wollemia nobilis has a very primitive appearance and Jurassic (140 million years before present) fossils from Talbragar in New South Wales have very similar foliage. Similar fossil pollen from Victoria is known to have occurred up to 90 million years ago. The oldest individual trees in the gorge are estimated to be about 400 years in age and they have stong coppicing tendancy, so as many as 30 trunks may arise from roots that are much older. There are also many epicormic shoots. The adult trees vary from 88 to 115 feet high and one fallen trunk measured 124 feet long and 10 feet circumference. The bark has an usual brown knobby cork-like ("bubbly chocolate") character. The leaves are light green with waxy surfaces and arranged in two rows. The female cones grow at the end of the upper branches, separate from the males cones on lower branches. Excellent pictures are available on several websites, including:

http://www.rbgsyd.gov.au/rbg/sci/wollemi/wollemihome.html and http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Canopy/2285/ar/wo/index.htm

Any of the search engines will reveal many illustrative sites if you seek the word "wollemia."

Even the name of this "fossil tree" has a great appeal: nobilis for David Noble and because only a very noble tree could have survived for so many millions of years and the aboriginal word Wollemia means "look around you."

Back to Home Page