Photo : John Turnbull
From dinosaur tree to producer of paddle pop sticks, the Hoop Pine, Araucaria cunninghamii Alton ex A. Cunn., is very much at home in the Australian National Botanic Gardens. It can be seen thriving in the rainforest gully (Sections 61, 62, 64) and the conifer area adjacent to the caged Wollemi Pine in Section 78. (Editors' note : The Wollemi Pine has since died - see Friends Briefs).
This large, elegant conifer belongs to the Araucariaceae, a widespread and abundant family on the super-continent Gondwana, long before Australia broke away and began its drift northwards. Araucarian fossil plants go back over 100 million years to the early Cretaceous age and ancestors of these trees certainly co-existed with dinosaurs.
These days the Araucariaceae family includes Bunya Pine (A.bidwillii), Kauri Pines (Agathis species) and the recently discovered 'living fossil' Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis). Species in the genus Araucaria grow in Southern America, New Guinea and some Pacific islands as well as in Australia. So not surprisingly the name 'Araucaria' is derived from 'Arauco', a province in southern Chile where Araucaria araucana, the Monkey Puzzle tree, is native. Some botanists believe the derivation is from 'Araucanos', a tribe in Chile formerly inhabiting the region where the first Araucaria species was discovered.
In Australia this tree is commonly referred to as 'Hoop Pine' and occasionally as 'Moreton Bay Pine' or 'Colonial Pine'. Young trees have attractive reddish brown to coppery bark that splits and peels in horizontal strips. Old trees fall eventually to the forest floor where their soft coniferous wood decays rapidly and all that remains are hoops of bark. These hoops have inspired the tree's common name.
Early in the nineteenth century Englishman William Townsend Aiton (1766-1849) published the name Araucaria cunninghamii. Aiton gained distinction as a landscape gardener and was the Royal Gardener at Kew for almost 50 years from 1793. He was also one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society. The specific name, 'cunninghamii', honours Allan Cunningham (1791 - 1839) who was an explorer and one of Australia's great early botanical collectors. Cunningham studied law and initially worked in conveyancing. He soon became dissatisfied with this profession and found employment as the assistant to William Aiton at Kew Gardens. It was Aiton who recommended Cunningham to Sir Joseph Banks and helped him secure an appointment as a botanical collector.
After a short time collecting plant specimens in Brazil, Allan Cunningham was sent to New South Wales to collect plants on John Oxley's 1817 expedition to the Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers. He was the botanist on Captain Phillip Parker King's survey of the Australian coasts from 1817 - 1820 and later made botanical collections in New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand.
Although primarily a botanist, he was equally proficient as an explorer. In a series of expeditions he discovered Pandora's Pass through the Liverpool Range (1823), located the rich agricultural area of the Darling Downs (1827), a route to them from Moreton Bay through Cunningham's Gap (1828), and mapped the Brisbane River to its source (1829). He would have encountered Hoop Pines on many occasions during his travels in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.
In 1831 Allan Cunningham returned to England where he arranged his botanical specimens in the Kew herbarium and prepared papers for publication. He came back to Australia in 1837 and for a short time was the Colonial Government Botanist in Sydney. His health failed after a visit to New Zealand and he died from tuberculosis in a cottage at Sydney Botanic Gardens on 27 June 1839.
Hoop Pine in the Australian National Botanic Gardens
Photo : John Turnbull
Cunningham's main collections are in Kew Herbarium but duplicates exist in many herbaria. Numerous taxa have been based on his collections and many of his manuscript names have since been taken up. His name is also commemorated in the genus Cunninghamia and in several Australian species including Acacia cunninghamii Hook, and Casuarina cunninghamiana Miq.
Hoop Pine is long-lived and can reach the impressive height of 60 metres and have a basal stem diameter up to two metres. Its narrow scale-like leaves are sharply pointed and slightly curved. They are arranged in spirals on branchlets and, like the well-known Norfolk Island Pine (A. heterophylla), the leaves and branchlets are shed as single units. The globular cones, up to 10 cm in diameter, develop at the ends of branches and break up on the tree when the seeds are mature.
This tree flourishes on well-drained, relatively fertile sites dominated by subtropical rainforest in coastal areas of northern New South Wales and Queensland. It is found on many islands off the Queensland coast and extends into Papua New Guinea and West Papua. Mature trees often emerge above the canopy of broadleaved rainforest species. In wetter areas its associates include Queensland Maples (Flindersia species), Rosewood (Dysoxylum species) and species in the Lauraceae family. On alluvial sites and near creeks it is associated commonly with Black Bean (Castanospermum australe) , Brown Pine (Podocarpus elatus) and Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta). On the driest sites, the Queensland Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris) is an associate.
Hoop Pine is the most important native conifer for wood production Queensland. In addition to the natural forests there are about 40,000 hectares of Hoop Pine plantations, mainly in southeast Queensland. The white to pale brown wood is relatively free of knots. It is strong and easy to work, paint and stain. With these characteristics it makes excellent timber for internal beams and flooring, cabinet work, boat building and plywood products. The wood is also tasteless, odourless and very fine-grained and it is one of the few timers in the world that can be used with foodstuffs. For many years it was used for boxes in which butter was exported and today a Queensland company uses hoop pine to supply ice cream sticks globally !
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