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King's Holly - The World's Oldest Living Tree?

Marion Jarratt

Note: This article originally appeared in 'Brigge', the newsletter of the friends of Burrendong Arboretum. The Arboretum is located in the central west of New South Wales, near Wellington.

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Some years ago I remember reading or hearing something about King's Holly - that it was an unusual and very old plant. I forget the details now. And, then, out of nowhere, the other day I suddenly found the whole story in a book about trees.

It's really a detective story and it's extraordinary.

In 1937 a great Tasmanian bushman, a man passionately interested in nature and a meticulous observer and a trusted collector for museums and botanists, found in the foothills of the Bathurst Range in south western Tasmania what seemed to be a small population of slender trees with distinctive shiny deep green leaves and scarlet flowers, possibly a Lomatia.

Lomatia tasmanica
Lomatia tasmanica at the Hobart Botanical Garden
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Author: Shantavira

In 1965 the same man, Charles Denison King, found another population of the same species about 5 kms from the first. And this time a botanist from the University of Tasmania expressed interest and asked for more samples. She wondered if the plant was a Lomatia previously unknown to science. King obliged and Curtis, the botanist, was able to confirm that it was indeed a new species of Lomatia and called it Lomatia tasmanica, although it became known as King's Holly after its discoverer.

But the story does not end here. The first populations had disappeared (possibly as the result of fire) and concern for the remaining stand saw researchers from Hobart's Royal Botanic Gardens visiting the site in the mid 1990s to collect four specimens for propagation. Try as they might the cuttings, while they would thrive initially, would not continue to grow. And, in addition, it was found that although the trees in the wild population flowered they produced neither fruit nor seeds.

Enter researchers from the University of Tasmania. In 1998 they undertook genetic tests and found all four plants were genetically identical. Excited they returned to the wild population and found they were identical as well. So the stand was not a number of individual plants but a single plant sending up stems from a huge underground root system. Because this population spread over a kilometre of gully, scattered among rainforest relics and because growth rings indicated very slow growth (a stem 2 cm thick was about 60 years old), researchers deduced that the original plant must be very old indeed.

But......scientists can never leave well alone. Further genetic studies showed that instead of the usual pairs of chromosomes that carry the reproductive genes, the King's Holly chromosomes came in threes. Therefore the chromosomes were unable to team up with a new partner post flowering, as normal flowering plants do. King's Holly was sterile and that, of course, explained why there was no fruit or seed.

So, what of the original population found 5 kms away? Unbelievable as it seemed researchers had to concede that that both populations were really a single individual plant!

But, there's more to come. Fossilised leaves identical to those of King's Holly were found in swampy sediments nearby. Since the plant cannot reproduce sexually researchers hypothesised they must have come from the same plant. Carbon dating of the fossilised leaves gave a range of 43,000 to 130,000 years!!!!

If this hypothesis is true King's Holly has weathered countless floods, fires, storms and drought as well as several Ice Ages and may even, if we accept the upper age limit, have been around at the dawn of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa.



If Trees Could Speak; Bob Beale. Allen and Unwin, 2007.

From 'Brigge', the newsletter of the Friends of Burrendong Arboretum Inc., April 2008.

For further information on King's Holly, refer to the article on the website of the Australian Plant Society (Tasmania).

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Australian Plants online - 2008
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