The Australian bush fires are far off in a world beset with many perilous natural events, including volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, but there is something about the fires that has entered the collective global consciousness in a way that has made this disaster different.
This may be down to the power and immediacy of the picture-driven, connected age we live in, with its images of poor, burned koalas, homes reduced to charcoal or tennis stars at the Australian Open wheezing in Melbourne’s smoke. It may be the reach and tenacity of fires that began months ago and continue to blaze — scorching 15 million acres and counting. It may be the pernicious shadow of climate change over the conflagration.
The plight of the animals is compelling, even if the oft-repeated estimate of a billion creatures perishing is regarded by most experts as incalculable and unreliable. Many animals have the ability to flee the fires. But with few exceptions, there is very little coverage of the fire’s effects on plants, which are both unable to outrun the fires and are fueling them.
Many of the trees, shrubs and other flora that call Australia home have evolved over the ages to cope with wildfires, and many species may need fire to regenerate — but the magnitude and intensity of the blazes may even count against them. In those 15 million acres, how many colonies of rare orchids or sundews or acacias have been consumed forever?
This is not just a parlor game, for one of the rarest and most endangered plants on Earth is in the thick of it: the Wollemi pine — a conifer thought long extinct and known only as fossils before a chance discovery in 1994 in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.
The discovery of this living dinosaur is regarded as one of the great biological reincarnations of all time, and the existence of living Wollemi pines has entered the collective consciousness as well, certainly in Australia and within the global horticultural community.
That is why the state authorities have gone to a great deal of trouble to protect the Wollemi pines as the fires have spread nearby, announcing last week that they have protected the trees in a preventive operation involving airborne tankers and firefighters on the ground. With fewer than 200 trees left, “we knew we had to do everything we could to save them,” said Matt Kean, the New South Wales environment minister.
It’s possible that the Wollemi pines may survive the wildfire — they regenerate from suckers — but no one in their right mind would want to put it to the test, especially because the biggest tree may be 1,000 years old.
The location of the grove has been kept secret and the area secured; one concern is that visitors might bring in a deadly pathogen.
Happily, the wild Wollemi pine is now in cultivation, meaning specimens propagated from the wild colony abound in botanic gardens and with private connoisseurs across the globe.
The first plants were introduced with a lot of hoopla: Some sold at Sotheby’s for four figures, and the initial plantings in England, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and its satellite garden Wakehurst, were planted ceremoniously by David Attenborough and actor Kenneth Branagh 15 years ago.
They continue to flourish, as do specimens planted in the various arboreta of Kew’s Scottish equivalent, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
The conifer is not a pine — purists prefer to call it Wollemia — and is named for the park where it was found, Wollemi National Park, pronounced Woll-a-my. The tree’s botanical name is Wollemia nobilis, and it is in a highly select botanical club, apart from its own rarity, with only three genera in its family embracing little more than 30 species of primitive Southern Hemisphere conifers. The best known is the Norfolk Island pine, sold as a houseplant, though another, the Chilean monkey puzzle tree, has been a botanical curiosity since the 19th century.
It seems that, when planted in garden soil, Wollemi pines “may be susceptible to common and ubiquitous pathogenic fungi,” said Bill McLaughlin, curator of plants at the United States Botanic Garden, in the shadow of the Capitol. He said they don’t seem bothered when planted in containers, and this would also permit them to be brought in to a protected area in a harsh winter.
Among the botanic garden’s small collection are two growing in an enclave of the Conservatory planted with rare and endangered flora. When they reach the height of the glasshouse, they are cut back and a new leader grows from the ground, McLaughlin said.
Another display in the Conservatory — the Garden Primeval — reminds us that we still have many beautiful plants that were around at the time of the dinosaurs but were never thought extinct. These include ferns, tree ferns, cycads and mosses.
The discovery of the Wollemia recalls the find of another fossil tree, the dawn redwood, which resurfaced in the wild in China in the 1940s. Its seed was brought to the United States through an expedition by Harvard’s Arnold Aboretum. It is now commonly grown and makes a handsome, fast-growing tree, preferring moist soils.
The ginkgo is another tree that has been saved through its widespread horticultural use. In his book “Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot,” paleobotanist Peter Crane tells us that the tree was already a declining primeval relic by the time humans discovered it some 50,000 years ago in what is now China. Crane was also director of Kew when the first Wollemias were planted. Ginkgo and Wollemia share “a very similar story,” said Crane, now president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, Virginia.
Crane said the Wollemia’s stewards in Australia have done a commendable job of protecting the wild colony and making sure its progeny was safely scattered around the world.
“It’s a really good example of ex situ conservation,” he told me.