March 4, 2024

“It was in 1994 when I first saw the pines. I was exploring a canyon along a creek with two friends of mine, Tony and Michael, where we had rappelled down. I remember being intrigued as to what kind of strange-looking tree it was up ahead.” With this simple beginning, Australian game warden David Noble was about to make one of the most important botanical discoveries of the last century. So, the Wollemi pine (wollemia nobilis) rose to fame as a new species within the Araucaria family (araucariaceae), some plants that bear cones, such as pines (Pinus spp.). A new living fossil had just been found, since its morphological features make it related to fossil records preserved for millions of years. In honor of David Noble the epithet of the species was dedicated, nobles.

Passionate about canyoning, this botanist continues to recount that day in the Wollemi National Park, in the Blue Mountains region. “It was damp and cool in the shadow of the canyon. Under the pines there was not much understory and it was quite open, so we sat under these strange trees for lunch. I remember commenting that they looked peculiar, but the conversation turned to how we would get out of the canyon to return before dark. So they abandoned the stand of less than a hundred specimens of that strange conifer.

“I picked up a small leaf from one of the trees, and took it to naturalist Wyn Jones, who was working for the National Park Service at the time. Being a busy man, he pushed her aside and said that he would get back to me. A few days later he asked me if the leaf was from a bush, but when I told him it was from a big tree his interest grew and he insisted that I take him to see it.

David Noble still had to wait a few weeks for what he already suspected to be confirmed: “More than a month passed before they realized that the tree was something extraordinary and unknown. It was amazing that something so big had gone unnoticed for so long, and only a couple of hours from Sydney. The fact that the trees have survived for so long and have stayed alive in a remote little canyon, protected from fire and drought, is fascinating.”

David Noble in June 2021 at Anvil Rock in the Blue Mountains, surrounded by 'Actinotus helianthi' flowers.
David Noble in June 2021 at Anvil Rock in the Blue Mountains, surrounded by ‘Actinotus helianthi’ flowers.Ingvar Kenne –

Ask. When did you decide to choose a job like yours, taking care of the forests?

Answer. When I was in high school I decided that I wanted to work with the environment. So I studied Biology, Geography and Chemistry, which later helped me with my university degree in Environmental Control and Park Management. At university I studied Botany and Photography, and I became interested in identifying the plants that surround me.

Q. How is a day at work?

R. I work as a ranger for the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales (Australia). Every day is different, and can include fighting a fire in the summer, searching for lost tourists, planning new visitor facilities, or sitting in front of a computer writing reports.

Q. You are also an explorer. He looks like one of those botanists who can travel thousands of kilometers to see a small flower in the middle of nowhere.

R. Yes, but I didn’t have to travel very far. The Wollemi Pine was hidden in a canyon west of Sydney.

P. What did she feel at the moment that it was finally known that she was a new species?

R. Amazement, it was unexpected. Finding such a big tree, so close, but still unknown. I was privileged to have been able to find the Wollemi pine. I did not expect that it would be possible to discover a new species in 1994.

Female cones of 'Wollemia nobilis'
Female cones of ‘Wollemia nobilis’Rosie Nicolai/DPE

Q. Do you often return to the place where the Wollemi pine grows? Can you describe what it is like?

R. No one is allowed to return. The place is kept in quarantine to protect the plants from diseases. The last time I saw the Wollemi pines was in 1995. They grow deep in a canyon, in a wild environment. There are no houses, roads or trails nearby to walk. An intact and virgin place whose location is kept secret. Although the Blue Mountains are not high, they are certainly very complex. The vegetation can also be very thick and slow down the progress of walkers.

Q. Apart from the diseases you mention, are there any other hazards that could affect the population of Wollemia?

R. The Wollemi pines will be safe as long as humanity doesn’t interfere. The 2019 and 2020 fires were so devastating that there was a sense of despair. He knew that the pines would be fine, since they had burned before and regenerated. But climate change is the main issue that needs to be addressed soon.

Wollemi pines in the Australian canyon where they grow.
Wollemi pines in the Australian canyon where they grow.Jaime Plaza / Botanic Gardens Trust

P. Do you take care of a garden?

R. I live on a 40-hectare property and have my own orchard and fruit trees. I grow avocados, apples, stone fruit and many varieties of citrus.

Q. Since its discovery, the Wollemi pine has been cultivated regularly and successfully. Have you planted any?

R. Yes, I have been invited to plant Wollemi pines at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England, and in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. I like to think that my find made people realize that there are still discoveries to be made in remote wilderness areas. Now that the species has spread throughout the world, in botanical gardens and in people’s own gardens, the Wollemi pine will survive long into the future, and people will be able to watch them mature and change.

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