Less-famous living fossil: Botanist fine with ‘iconic’ Wollemi Pine overshadowing his own rare tree find
Botanist David Jinks in 2018, returned to visit the Springbrook Leatherwood he discovered in 1993. (Supplied: David Jinks; ABC Gold Coast: Tom Forbes)
If you have never heard of the Springbrook Leatherwood tree it may be because it was discovered around the same time as another living fossil — the headline-grabbing Wollemi Pine.
Botanist David Jinks was walking through a remote section of the Springbrook National Park, west of the Gold Coast, in 1993, when he came across an unusual looking rainforest tree.
“I never expected to discover a tree,” he said.
Dr Jinks collected samples and testing revealed it was an undiscovered species of Eucryphia, an evergreen plant that is only found in Australia and South America.
“It’s one of the few trees we have that link us directly to the supercontinent Gondwana,” said the botanist.
“There’s Eucryphias in Tasmania, Eucryphias in far north Queensland and now we’ve got Eucryphias in south-east Queensland, so it links up the extent of them over the latitude.”
A second stand of the subtropical trees was then discovered inside the National Park and it is estimated there are as few as 400 plants in existence.
Botanist Bill McDonald said a decision was made 25 years ago to keep the location of the Leatherwood sites secret. (ABC News: Tom Forbes)
“The fact that there are so few left now, probably means that they were on a decline naturally and they’re hanging on here because it’s a relic — the conditions are just perfect enough for them to survive,” Dr Jinks said.
Former Queensland Herbarium botanist, Dr Bill McDonald said the discovery of the Springbrook Leatherwood cannot be underestimated.
“It was one of the most significant botanical discoveries, in certainly eastern Australia, in probably the last 50 years,” he said.
To the untrained eye, the Leatherwood, which grows up to 30 metres in height, resembles many other rainforest trees, but Dr Jinks said the species has some physiological anomalies.
“It really is a quite a unique tree,” he said.
“There some really strange physiological things it does with its leaf, it changes leaf sizes and shapes when it flowers.”
The more ‘iconic’ Wollemi Pine
A few months after Dr Jinks found the Springbook Leatherwood, a former New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife employee, David Noble discovered the Wollemi Pine.
Located in a series of steep-sided gorges inside the Wollemi National Park, west of Sydney, the coniferous tree was thought to be extinct.
The critically endangered tree attracted international attention and a recovery plan was drawn up, outlining strategies to manage the fragile population.
Dr Bill McDonald, who retired from Queensland Herbarium after 40 years service, said a decision was made 25 years ago to keep the location of the Leatherwood sites secret.
“Being a conifer, the Wollemi Pine had that little bit more, whatever you want to call it, iconic status and this [Springbrook Leatherwood] really slipped under the radar,” he said.
David Jinks said he was happy for the Wollemi Pine to grab the headlines.
“My concern was more for the tree,” he said.
“I was happy that it was protected and didn’t have people traipsing after it.
“There are collectors that will come from all around the place to try and find a rare plant, and I know that the Queensland Herbarium and National Parks are very concerned that this would be a ‘let’s go find the Eucryphia’ situation.”
Dr Jinks agrees the discovery of the Wollemi Pine was significant, but he believes the Springbrook Leatherwood or Eucryphia Jinksii, which was named after him, is more beautiful.
“One thing that New South Wales should be jealous about is that the Eucryphia has a beautiful big white flower,” he said.
“The Wollemi doesn’t have a flower, so this is a much nicer plant than the Wollemi Pine.”
Threats to Springbrook Leatherwood
The Springbrook Leatherwood may be safe from indirect human intervention, but Dr Jinks is worried about its long-term future.
“The threats that they’re facing now relate to water, I am convinced they are dependent on permanent water,” he said.
The botanist believes rainfall patterns are changing and the Springbrook National Park is experiencing dryer periods than it once did.
He also said the level of cloud rain, which can supply up to 30 per cent of the rainforest trees’ water, is gradually lifting and nearby water extraction may be impacting on the ancient species.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife ranger, Ebony Hall manages the 6,197-hectare Springbrook National Park and said she is aware of the ancient species and its significance.
“It’s been given World Heritage status for a reason and we’re here to maintain that status,” she said.
“Everything is a threat to this area and it’s such a smaller area that it needs that level of protection.”
Dr Jinks estimates the Springbrook Leatherwood has been growing on earth for up to 40-million years.
He said there have been multiple efforts to propagate the tree, with just one successful planting, which occurred inside the national park.
“I’d like to find a PhD student to answer some of the theories we’ve got about why it’s here and why it’s not somewhere else,” Dr Jinks said.