The Wollemi Pine has survived for 200 million years -but just barely. Only 23 trees still exist in the wild. To help ensure their preservation, private companies are now allowed to grow seedlings and sell them to gardeners and horticulturists all over the world. But the location of the wild trees is kept secret for their own protection.
Colored a hazy blue by sunlight glancing off of evaporating droplets of oil from the ever-present eucalyptus trees, the Blue Mountains are weird enough. But in the middle of it all is the ultimate weirdness: the world’s rarest tree, a throwback to the Jurassic Age that exists only in one remote gorge in this rambling mountain park.
The Wollemi pine has been extinct for 30 million years—at least, that’s what scientists thought until 1994, when three small stands were discovered in a hidden pocket of coachwood-sassafras rainforest. Soaring 35m (115 ft.) high, they have waxy leaves of a exotic lime-green color and pebbly cocoa-brown bark. Promptly nicknamed the “dinosaur tree,” this species seems identical to trees recorded in Jurassic age fossils, but not in any later fossils. As a casual visitor you won’t be able to see the Wollemi pines—access is strictly controlled, and the location of the canyon is kept secret by park management. Disappointing as this may be for tourists, it’s all for the good of the trees. Botanists who are granted access for research purposes may one day be able to propagate new Wollemi pines for the rest of the world to enjoy.
Besides, a park that has Wollemi pines is bound to have other unusual and rare things to see. There’s the banksias conferta subsp. penicillata, a rare endemic mountain shrub with a brushy cylindrical yellow flower. Along with koalas, wombats, and platypus, unusual-even-for-Australia species frolic about like the brush-tailed rock wallaby and the glossy black cockatoo. Near the old oil shale mine at Wolgan (the park contains a handful of such industrial ghost towns), an abandoned railway tunnel is eerily illuminated even in daytime by a population of glowworms. Impressive geological formations like gorges, cliffs, caves, and steep sand- stone escarpments make this one of the most rugged parks you’ll ever see, with three rivers—the Wolgan, the Colo, the Capertee—carving through the wilderness. (Only the Colo is navigable by canoe or kayak, and then only in high water; canoeists can, however, paddle around atmospheric Dunns Swamp.) Most visitors venture only a short way into this huge park, but longdistance hikers and rock- climbers can really get into untrammeled wilderness.
Perhaps the most impressive experi- ence of all is tramping through an unbroken stretch of forest dominated by eucalyptus trees, constituting almost 90% of the park. (No wonder koalas like to hang out here.) It’s anything but monotonous, with 70 different eucalyptus species represented. Take time to note the differences in their barks and evergreen leaves and flowers as you walk around, and to inhale deeply their distinctive fragrance. No wonder the Blue Mountains look so blue!