20 September 2003

Prehistoric pines coming to a garden near you

Sydney - The Wollemi pine is so precious that anyone attempting to find the secret stands of the 150-million-year-old 'living fossil' in Australia's south-east corner risks a fine of AUS$220 000 (about R1,6-million).

But botanist Sally McGeoch said Friday that before the end of next year saplings of a species once thought extinct would be on sale in garden centres around the world.

The pines are in commercial cultivation and 150 000 of them will be ready for release in 18 months.

McGeoch, spokesperson for Wollemi Pine International, told Australia's AAP news agency that the Jurassic-age Wollemi had generated phenomenal interest among gardeners in the United States, Asia and Europe.

The pines could survive in hot or cold climates and would even suit apartment dwellers. 'They grow particularly well indoors, so for people that don't have large backyards, that's great news,' McGeoch said.

Ranger Dave Noble came across the stand of Wollemi in September 1994 in the Blue Mountains a couple of hours' drive from Sydney.

The 500 000 hectare patch where the stand was found was designated the Wollemi Wilderness and is out of bounds to the general public.

Professor Carrick Chambers, director of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, said at the time of the discovery that it was 'the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on earth'.

I am not on a paleontological kick. I am simply showing that public enterprise can grow an almost-extinct species much more effectively than Canadian contractors can grow cannabis. I am not sure what that says about the ethos of the two nations.

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