A week ago yesterday, I was on the train coming from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A seasoned New Yorker, I can tune out my neighbors on the train with ease. But when one of the people to my left said "botany" I immediately began to pay attention. He was talking about the academic landscape of plant sciences to a man and a woman, who I later learned, were his daughter and grandson.
I had to interrupt. It turns out that the man speaking was a plant scientist, working at the herbarium of the University of Florida. He had taken his family to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to see Wollemia nobilis, or the Wollemia pine, discovered for the first time in 1994.
Wollemia was found in the Wollemi National Park, 200 km away from Sydney. That's just over 100 miles. 100 miles from a major city, and yet, this plant was growing unnamed, unidentified by all. That's kinda amazing these days. It was discovered by a park officer named David Noble (thus nobilis for a species name).
The specimen at the BBG was petite, to say the least. The largest ones found in the Wollemi Park reached 130 feet. The plant is unique in that the flattened leaves can grow off the stem in two ranks, as well as four ranks.
Wollemia is in the Araucariaceae family, and perhaps it's most recognizable relative in this climate would be the monkey puzzle tree, or Araucaria araucana, which is native to Chile and Argentina.
Scientists have compared the pollen of Wollemia to fossils of pollen, and Wollemia's pollen more closely resembles the fossil pollen than any living genus in this plant family. Wollemia has other characteristics that make it closely resemble plants from the Cretaceous era, meaning this species has most likely survived for over 90 million years.
I think this whole story is incredible. On the one hand, you have a plant growing in a fairly well-tread area and yet it wasn't discovered until 1994. On the other, you have an individual who saw this tree and knew his plants well enough to realize this was something different. The comprehensive knowledge one must have to spot a new species is impressive. Finally, it's simply exciting to know that we haven't seen it all yet. Not nearly, one hopes.