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‘Dinosaur trees’ from Australia begin their new life at Bodnant Garden

9167 Gardener Alex Davies, assisted by gardener Huw Edwards, abseils into Bodnant's Dell to plant one of the Wollemi pines. Credit: National Trust

Bodnant Garden, a National Trust Cymru garden in North Wales, is joining together with Forestry England to plant critically endangered Wollemi pine trees as part of the first global ‘metacollection’ to save the iconic species from extinction and help protect the biodiversity of wild trees. 

More than 170 young Wollemi Pine trees grown by Botanic Gardens of Sydney were shipped from Australia and have been carefully looked after at Forestry England’s tree nursery at Bedgebury. Six were planted there on 31 October to become part of the living collection at the National Pinetum, while the remaining trees have been distributed to 28 botanic gardens across the UK and Europe – including Bodnant Garden. 

Wollemi Pines have been dubbed the ‘dinosaur tree’ because fossil records show they were living 200 million years ago alongside the dinosaurs. It was thought they had become extinct between 70 and 90 million years ago until a chance discovery in 1994, when a small group of living trees was found by an Australian explorer and botanist, David Noble, growing in a remote gorge in the Wollemi National Park in New South Wales.  

This moment is considered one of the greatest botanical discoveries of our time. The tree species is now classified as critically endangered on the IUCN’s red list, an important indicator of the world’s biodiversity which sets out the risks of extinction for plant and animal species. 

Since its discovery, there has been a concerted effort to insure the species against the loss of the remaining wild trees, with fewer than 100 left growing in a gorge 150 kilometres from Sydney. These wild trees are increasingly vulnerable to threats from diseases and wildfires and narrowly escaped being destroyed by wildfires in 2019-2020 which burnt more than 10 million hectares of land in eastern Australia.  

Recent advances in genetic techniques have enabled Australian plant science and conservation experts to identify and breed genetically diverse Wollemi pines. For the first time, these genetically diverse collections of saplings are being made available to botanic gardens across the world. 

Locations have been chosen with conditions best suited for the trees to survive climate changes ahead. Together they will create a metacollection, a botanical collection shared by separate organisations but cared for collaboratively to research and conserve the species for the future.  

Growing the trees worldwide in this way preserves the widest range of genetic diversity found in the wild population and aims to safeguard Wollemi pines from becoming extinct. 

Ned Lomax, Head Gardener at Bodnant Garden is delighted to be involved in the project. “Bodnant Garden is known for collecting and cultivating rare plants from around the world and is famed, amongst other things, for its extensive conifer collection which includes numerous UK and Welsh champion trees.” 

“Due to pressures from climate change, development and deforestation, many of these trees are now endangered in the wild and so our plants, originally grown for ornamental affect, have become highly important for their conservational value.”   

Playing even a small part in the safeguarding of such a fascinating species of conifer is a privilege for the team at Bodnant Garden. “We’re delighted to continue this tradition and to be able to play our small part. These trees originate from sheltered, humid and cool gorges in New South Wales, Australia and it’s our hope that Bodnant Garden here in North Wales, with its similar climate, can prove to be a real Welsh home-from-home.”  

Replicating the natural gorge habitat Wollemi Pines enjoy in the wild is not straightforward in a garden setting. The planting positions chosen are hoped to be suitable both for the success of the trees themselves as well as the aesthetics of the Grade 1 listed garden.  

Access to these positions was not easy but fortunately the Bodnant Garden team are trained and used to working in awkward conditions. After carefully abseiling down the perilous banks, planting holes were carved out and the young trees were successfully installed.  

Working in partnership, teams from Forestry England, Botanic Gardens of Sydney, and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) identified botanic gardens including Bodnant Garden situated in the Conwy valley, where the climate will best suit the Wollemi Pines.  

They were helped by data from a global citizen science project led by Botanic Gardens of Sydney and Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, which asked people to share their knowledge about Wollemi Pines already growing in private gardens and parks across the world.  

Wollemi Pines have been grown in private gardens and parks since 2005, though these trees are distinct from the trees forming the metacollection and lack their genetic diversity. As the metacollection becomes established, the teams from Forestry England, Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the garden team from Bodnant Garden itself will continue to monitor the trees as they grow and mature. 

The Wollemi Pines are part of a wider programme of plant conservation work undertaken by the National Trust. 

Working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s International Conifer Conservation Programme, the Trust has planted over 300 conifers which are endangered in the wild because of factors including habitat degradation, illegal cutting, fire and climate change. 

These include Cedrus libani (Cedar of Lebanon), now known in no more than 10 locations in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey; critically endangered Torreya taxifolia (Florida Torreya), which has declined by an estimated 98% over the last three generations; and Podocarpus salignus (willow-leaf podocarp), endemic to Chile, where in most areas there are no suitable habitats remaining.  

The Trust also works to protect threatened native Sorbus species, including rare Sorbus cheddarensis, known only in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.  

The charity’s Plant Conservation Centre in Devon plays an important part, propagating plants so they can be distributed more widely and safeguarded across garden, parkland and countryside sites. 

Alison Crook, the National Trust’s Plant Collections Curator, said: “The parks and gardens we care for have a long history of introducing new plant species and we’ve continued to do this in recent decades. Through this kind of work, we are playing our part in securing a future not just for UK biodiversity, but for biodiversity around the world.”