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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Overcast
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Jurassic plant
UW botany greenhouse cultivates living fossil
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Mo Fayyaz with Wollemi pine.
Mo Fayyaz with Wollemi pine.
Credit:David Medaris

Most people who look at plants just see plants — ferns, perhaps, or perennials or weeds, or trees. When Dr. Mohammad Fayyaz looks at plants, the director of the UW botany department’s greenhouses and garden looks beyond species and sees opportunity.

He did not, for example, acquire a rare Wollemi pine seedling just for the educational uses — although “it is a good specimen for teaching,” he says, citing applications in courses ranging from plant geography to classification, morphology and anatomy.

He’s also helping this ancient species persevere.

Fayyaz obtained the pine seedling for $100 from the National Geographic Society, which has entered into a partnership with Wollemi Pine International to help propagate the species. Seedlings are available to the public as well as researchers. Royalties support the preservation of the Wollemi pine and other endangered Australian plant species.

Wollemia nobilis derives its genus and species names from Australia’s Wollemi National Park, where it was found in 1994, and from David Noble, an Australian National Parks and Wildlife officer who came upon it during a trek with friends.

At more than 1.2 million acres, Wollemi is about the size of our own Grand Canyon National Park and is itself distinguished by hundreds of canyons and gorges so remote, forested and deep that many remain unexplored despite the park’s proximity to Sydney, about an hour’s drive to the southeast.

Wollemi is also part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, where the occasional discovery of new species is not without precedent. What made Noble’s discovery unusual was the fact that it had been observed in the fossil record as far back as 90 million years — placing it in the Cretaceous Period — but was thought to have been extinct for 2 million years.

Distinguished by dark green foliage and bark that looks like bubbling chocolate, the Wollemi pine grows as tall as 130 feet in the wild. Noble thought it unusual enough to collect a fallen branch and take it to Sydney for botanical analysis. “When they first found it,” says Fayyaz, “they thought it was a fern.”

On closer inspection, it was identified as a member of the family Araucariaceae, which includes the Bunya, hoop, kauri, monkey puzzle and Norfolk Island pines and traces its roots back 200 million years to the Jurassic Period. Some botanists have speculated that the Wollemi pine itself may date to the Jurassic.

Fewer than 100 Wollemi specimens are known to exist in the wild. The species is bisexual and bears both male and female cones, and individual trees grow multiple trunks. Called coppicing, this trait can make dating the age of individual trees difficult. A Wollemi trunk that has been growing for four centuries may have roots more than twice as old.

In sum, the Wollemi puts the tree back into intriguing, and you can imagine the excitement its discovery ignited among botanists. “Here it was, live,” says Fayyaz. One scientist likened it to finding a living dinosaur.

While it is protected as an endangered species and only a few select botanists are privy to the location of its three known tree clusters, the Wollemi pine is a good candidate for conservation in greenhouses, according to Fayyaz. “This plant can easily be propagated in plant cuttings,” he notes.

Its tolerance for temperatures ranging from 113 degrees to as low as 10 places it in USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Madison sits on the border between zones 4 and 5, Fayyaz notes. “It cannot survive in Wisconsin,” he says. Not in the wild, anyway — though Fayyaz adds that he is considering transplanting this Wollemi pine to the adjacent botany gardens from spring until summer.

For now, he is cultivating the seedling in the UW-Madison’s botany greenhouses adjacent to Birge Hall, where the public will be able to see the specimen after next Tuesday, Jan. 30, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. At about one foot tall, it bears some resemblance to a fern. Fayyaz intends to grow it to four or five feet tall before trying to take cuttings. The species has grown to about 60 feet tall in similar conditions — about half the height observed in the wild.

Fayyaz has experience with this sort of undertaking. Several times in recent years, he has cultivated imposing specimens of Amorphophallus titanum — often called the corpse flower for its malodorous stench — and sent more than 1,000 of the resulting fruits to botanists and other scientists. Now he is receiving e-mails alerting him that plants derived from the fruits are now blooming.

These are important efforts, Fayyaz explains, because investigators may find chemical compounds or other attributes in exotic or endangered plants that yield benefits ranging from medical or pharmaceutical to horticultural.

In the case of the Wollemi pine, he suggests one possible attribute waiting to be discovered. “If this plant can survive such a long time,” he observes, “it must have very interesting defense mechanisms.”

Whether those mechanisms could be crossbred into other plants remains to be seen. But Fayyaz’s enthusiasm for such inquiries is manifest. “This is like Botanists Without Borders,” he observes. “The end result is, everyone is going to benefit.”

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