The Coastal Gardener: The greatest botanical find of the century

September 24, 2010|By Ron Vanderhoff

It's been called the botanical discovery of the century.

It was 16 years ago this month when Australian outdoorsman David Noble went on a hike less than 100 miles from downtown Sydney. David and two companions descended into a deep, sheltered canyon in the rugged Blue Mountains. Exploring the remote canyon, he came upon a small group of odd-looking trees.

The trees had unusual bark that resembled bubbles of chocolate, multiple trunks, ferny-looking leaves and were up to 100 feet tall. Curious, Noble took a fallen branch home to show to Wyn Jones, a senior naturalist with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. After a cursory glance, Jones told Noble that he thought the branch was from a fern.

"No," Noble said, "It's from a bloody great big tree."

Two weeks later, the two returned to the canyon with Jones to see the trees in the wild. They definitely were not ferns.


After considerable taxonomic research by botanists at both the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, the tree was finally revealed to the world by Ken Hill, senior botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Three months after Noble first set eyes upon these odd plants, his discovery was declared. It was Wollemia nobilis, a new genus and species. The trees were instant celebrities, and the news traveled quickly around the world.

For botanists, the discovery of these trees was akin to finding dinosaurs alive on Earth — and only 100 miles from a major metropolitan center!

In all, the wild population was placed at 76 trees and 200 seedlings. Wollemia nobilis had been discovered — or rediscovered. Thought to have been extinct for 90 million years, it previously was only known from a few fossil remnants dating back as far as 150 million years.

It was named in honor of both the region and its discoverer. Wollemi is an aboriginal word meaning "look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out." Nobilis pays tribute to its discoverer, Noble. Wollemi pines are members of the ancient Araucariaceae family, along with better known relatives like the Norfolk pine and monkey puzzle tree. All are plants of the southern hemisphere, found in isolated populations in South America, New Caledonia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Australia.

Daily Pilot Articles Daily Pilot Articles