Seeds of hope: on a mission to protect Tasmania’s ancient pencil pines


Hunched against the wind in Tasmania’s central highlands are the floral relics of the last ice age. Walking among them, armed with a large pole and a cloth bag, is James Wood, the coordinator of the Tasmanian seed bank. It is the first time in five years that Tasmania’s 1,000-year-old conifers have seeded, and he is determined not to miss it.

It is the third week of April. A coronavirus outbreak has occurred in Tasmania’s north-west, causing the premier to close two regional hospitals and place 5,000 health workers and their families in quarantine. And Wood is walking a deserted stretch of the Overland Track, alone but for Justin Dyer, his guide from the Tasmanian Walking Company, in search of stands of pencil pines, or Athrotaxis cupressoides.

On an ordinary day, the Overland Track carries 60 hikers. But the national parks are closed and travel banned due to the coronavirus, so for five days Wood and Dyer see no one except for a few park rangers, dozens of pademelons (a squat, short-tailed wallaby) and a hungry platypus that ignored them in favour of hunting in a tarn, two humans being no competition to the lure of a full belly.

“It was just incredibly quiet,” Wood says. “You do get this feeling of real privilege that you’re getting that place pretty much to yourself.”

The pencil pines are one of five species of conifer endemic to Tasmania’s high country, the most well-known of which are king billy pines (Athrotaxis selaginoides). They are the last remnants of the Gondwana forest, from a genus that is at least 150m years old.

The trees are not listed as threatened because they are not uncommon within their ecosystems, but that could change any given summer. Stands of pencil pines and cheshunt pines at Lake Mackenzie were destroyed when a fire raced down the Devil’s Gullet in 2016. Stands of king billy pines were also lost.

“The reality is that if fire frequency increases in these upland areas, and that seems very likely, that could change very quickly,” Wood says. “So what we are trying to do here is act preemptively and get seed collections in place when we can.”

The Tasmanian pines are more dispersed and their habitat wilder, making a rescue effort like that which saved the ancient Wollomi pines in the New South Wales Blue Mountains this summer more difficult.

“It does make them very vulnerable,” Wood says.

Pencil pines and other Athrotaxis produce seeds only every few years, as part of a global masting event that triggers sudden seed production in unrelated plants around the world.

The last masting event was in 2015. The trigger, says Wood, appears to be two successively hotter summers, although there’s no consensus on the exact cause. This year the seeding was “patchy”, with pencil pines on higher and drier areas not producing pine cones, and cheshunt pines, which often grow nearby, not seeding at all.

It means that while Tasmania will likely deliver on the prerequisite for hotter summers, due to the climate emergency, the accompanied drying out of the highlands could leave the pencil pines too stressed to seed.

That is why the 2020 masting was so important. An ambitious plan involving teams of volunteers, visiting specialists from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, helicopters and arborists was formed in December and tree enthusiasts on Facebook were mobilised to monitor conifer flowering. Those plans were spiked when the pandemic was declared, and Wood got permission for the two-person operation focused just on the pencil pines.

Pencil pines are particularly tricky for seed gatherers, because they grow in the wild as suckers.

“Most of the stands of the trees that you see in Tasmania are all clonal,” Wood says. “They sucker from their roots and spread that way so large strands of trees generally have only a couple of individuals. You may see several hundred trees but there may be only a dozen or less individuals in that stand.”

They walked 70km over the five days, gathering two handfuls of pine cones from each of the 46 stands visited to ensure the seeds collected were genetically diverse. At the end, the bank was 8,000 seeds richer.

“Unfortunately we have missed all the other opportunities we had,” Wood says. “Hopefully when the next masting event takes place those stands will still be there and still be happy.”, 14 May 2020