Growing the world’s most expensive pine tree

Preserving a fossil, or setting gardeners up for failure?

Wollemi Pine at the Garden of St Erth, still just 30cm high after 5 years!

Probably Australia's greatest nursery plant ‘rip off’ in our 200 plus year history, is the misguided promotion of the Wollemi Pine.

Restoring the latest living fossil into gardens not just in Australia, but around the world, is important but misguided because about 90% of them fail.

Most us can tolerate a few failures with plant establishment, and the Wollemi Pine would be no different if it weren't for the fact that we were charged around $190 for a 70cm specimen, and that we have been manipulated into thinking we were supporting a great cause (i.e. funding one of Australia's botanic gardens).

Unfortunately, the cause of the failure is almost certainly one where many of us would be expecting the botanic gardens to be the experts. Aren't our botanic gardens supposed to be the experts at acclimatising plants? Surely that is their raisons d'etre for their creation.

The Wollemi was first discovered in 1994 in an isolated valley 150km NE of Sydney. It relates to the same family of Araucarias (Conifers), such as the Cook Pine, the Bunya Bunya and Norfolk Island Pine. But whereas these Conifers have adapted to soils and climates from Cairns to Melbourne, the Wollemi has been so isolated that it has been restricted by soil and climate, whereby its feet are on the edge of running water and its sunlight restricted by the vertical walls of its canyon like rock home.

No one is providing answers to the cause of failure, but surely it would have all been more successful had the propagating nursery just lifted some of the original soil that contained the Mycorrhizae fungi that would have helped establish the Wollemi’s roots.

We checked with Professor Jim Trappe, truffle and mycorrhizae expert, who explained that the tree needs Arbuscular mycorrhizae (Glomeromycota spp. of fungi which penetrates the cortical cells of the roots of vascular plants) to develop a symbiotic relationship with the feeder roots to encourage the uptake of nutrients and water.

Secondly, most of the Wollemi plants were propagated by cuttings, so the roots that established in pots would not transfer into sterile soil without fungal transfer from the original soil.

Travelling from Melbourne to Sydney and Mt Cootha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane, you'll notice the Wollemi Pines in these gardens doing well, in direct contrast to the specimen we planted in wet shady conditions at St Erth over three years ago (pictured).

Today, that Wollemi is about 30 cm tall, and hasn't grown at all. It’s certainly been under whelming so far, to say the least.

Let us know if you have planted a Wollemi Pine and what has been your experience.

Close up of Wollemi foliage

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Clive Blazey

Clive is the founder of The Diggers Club, a pioneer in the rescue of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties and author of seven books on flower, vegetable and fruit gardening.
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