Other Gymnosperms

Despite the foul odor of the fleshy seed coat of seeds of Ginkgo, the starchy food reserves of the seeds themselves have a nutlike flavor punctuated with a hint of shrimp. In the Orient, Ginkgo seeds are widely used for food, either boiled



A Living

Just imagine a real-life Jurassic Park, where prehistoric dinosaurs long-thought extinct actually are alive. Well, something close to this happened in Australia in 1994. David Noble, while hiking on his Christmas holiday in the Wollemi National Park near Sydney, stepped into a stand of trees that, until that moment, were thought to have been extinct for over 150 million years. Known only as fossils, there they stood—about 40 pine trees growing in an isolated, rugged, rain-forest gully that had protected them all these years. This is one of the most significant botanical finds of the century—and the trees are among the rarest plants alive.

Now called the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), these conifer (cone-bearing) trees are so distinct they constitute a new genus. While most conifers have dark green leaves, Wollemi pine leaves are bright and lighter green, almost the color of green apples. The leaves are complex and unusual. The trees are bisexual, with bright green seed cones and brown cylindrical pollen cones on the tips of upper branches. Also distinctive is the corklike knobby bark, which is an unusual chocolate brown. The tallest tree is estimated to be 150 years old, towering 130 feet from the ground, with a trunk about 3 feet wide. The new trees belong to the plant family Araucariaceae, which, while found only in the Southern Hemisphere today (Norfolk Island pine is an example), had a worldwide distribution during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (208-66 million years ago). This suggests that the Wollemi pines' closest relatives lived when Australia, New Zealand, Africa, South America, and India were all parts of the supercontinent Gondwana. During this period, the eastern coast of Australia lay close to the South Pole, when worldwide climates were relatively warm to hot and wet.

Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens and the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service are jointly studying the Wollemi pine with methods ranging from scanning electron microscopy of the leaf and pollen, to DNA extraction and gene-sequencing studies. One priority is to study its propagation methods so the plant can be established in cultivation. Although the Wollemi site is within 200 kilometers of Sydney, Australia's largest city, the exact location remains a secret to protect the plant from seed collectors and poachers.


A Living

Scale Plant Branch

Box Figure 22.1 Drawings of Wollemi pine. Top: Leaves and branch; Middle: Pollen cone (male) at end of branch; Bottom: Seed cone (female). Scale bar = 2 cm. Illustration by David MacKay, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

The Wollemi pines, protected in their sheltered spot, not only escaped when their closest relatives died some 50 million years ago, but remained hidden until this exciting, remarkable find. Wollemi is an aboriginal word meaning "look around you." What an appropriate name for this real living fossil—it reminds all of us that there remains much to understand and explore in our world.

D. C. Scheirer

Chapter 22

or roasted, and are found imported in canned form in Chinese food stores of large metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada. Extracts of Ginkgo plants have been clinically demonstrated to improve blood circulation in humans, and in 1998, more than 25 million Europeans were routinely taking Ginkgo extracts to counteract the effects of aging. Clinical studies have shown that Ginkgo leaf extracts do, indeed, improve blood supply to the brain and lungs, thereby improving both short-term memory and breathing.

Florida arrowroot starch was once obtained from the extensive cortex and pith of a species of cycad whose northernmost distribution occurs in Florida. Before it could be used for human consumption, however, a poisonous substance had to be leached out. Since cycads grow too slowly to make continued preparation of the arrowroot starch profitable, the practice has been abandoned. Today, cycads seen outside of their natural habitats are being grown primarily for ornamental or educational purposes. In Louisiana and elsewhere, however, the large compound leaves are used in Palm Sunday religious services. Some species are nearing extinction in the wild and may soon be known only in botanical gardens and conservatories.

In the southwestern United States, joint firs (Ephedra) are grazed by livestock, and the stems are still brewed into "Mormon tea." To offset a slight bitterness, a teaspoon of sugar, honey, or jam is added to each cup of tea. Native Americans and pioneers used a concentrated version of the tea in the treatment of venereal diseases. They also ground the seeds into flour from which a bitter bread was made. The drug ephedrine, widely used in the treatment of asthma and other respiratory problems, still is extracted from a Chinese species, but most of the drug now in use is synthetically produced. The Chinese used ephedrine medicinally more than 4,700 years ago. Continued medicinal use of ephedrine is now questionable because of potentially serious side effects.

One species of Gnetum is cultivated in Java for the shoots, which are eaten after being cooked in coconut milk. Fibers from the bark are made into a rope.

See Appendix 1 for scientific names of species discussed in this chapter.

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