Cryptozoologists search for lost and legendary animals. They are best known for their well-publicized expeditions to find Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. These hunts make for interesting documentaries but, so far, they have met with little success. A lesser known study labors in obscurity. Cryptobotany is dedicated to finding long lost and legendary plants all over the world. One might think that looking for a rare plant wouldn’t be very exciting but that is not the case. Expeditions have struck into the rain forests of Madagascar in search of the mysterious (and murderous) strangling tree. Like the hunt for Bigfoot, they have failed to discover the killer tree of folklore. Still, this under-reported study does have some successes to point out.
A decade ago, park ranger David Noble was hiking in a remote area some one hundred and twenty-five miles west of Sydney, Australia. The lush Blue Mountain area is little known with some narrow valleys never seen by modern man. Here he found himself in a long narrow valley with a stand of tall pine trees.
But, these were a type of pine tree Mr. Noble had never seen before and he knew his trees! Unable to classify the lofty conifers, he took some clippings to bring back to identify them. When botanists were presented with the samples they were shocked, then excited. The trees were an extinct species believed to have died out two million years ago. Before the chance discovery, they were known only from fossils. The Wollemi Pines were a living relic from the days of the dinosaurs.
If a living dinosaur had walked out of the Australian rain forest it would have been front page news all over the world, yet, the discovery of a tree from the Jurassic age garnered only a few lines in a handful of newspapers. But, scientists knew the importance of this find. The valley was placed off limits by the government and protected. Cuttings were made of the Wollemi Pines and grown in hot houses. The tree proved hearty and in months over a hundred saplings were thriving. Examples were sent to large botanic gardens in Asia and Europe. They can be seen in the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia, The Kew Gardens in London, England and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. As the saplings grow and more are planted, it is hoped that this tree may well be introduced in many places on earth. They may become a popular exotic landscaping element. It can grow one hundred and twenty feet tall with a trunk three feet in diameter.
The discovery of the Wollemi Pine is celebrated as the most important botanical find of the century. Professor Carrick Chambers of the Royal Society best described the importance of the find in this way; It is “ the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on earth.”
Cryptobotanists still search the planet for rare and lost plants, like the strangling tree of Madagascar, but, they can point to this discovery, a tree from the time of the dinosaurs, as a reason to be optimistic. Other plants remain to found in hidden corners of the world.