An afternoon of learning about ancient trees and ‘living fossils’: trees which were thought to be extinct, before scientists discovered they were still around, living and growing.

By Jane Moore ǀ Ranger, Forest of Marston Vale

Earlier this month I was able to join a Nature Live Online talk about ancient trees hosted by the Natural History Museum and led by scientist and Dr Fred Rumsey, renowned British plant specialist and Senior Curator at NHM. Dr Rumsey in charge of all the British flowering plants, ferns and herbarium at the Museum, and it was great to hear him get so passionate about these fascinating trees!

As part of the talk he explored the history of the three trees below, which are identical to fossil trees known to have lived millions of years ago - two of which were thought extinct to be extinct until relatively recently.

The Gingko (Gingko biloba or Maidenhair tree), found in China, was known to Europeans only from the late 17th Century onwards. Fossils dating back at least 180 million years are known. It is widely used as a street tree in the UK – so you may even recognise it - but mainly the male tree only. The female bears silver fruit (from which it gets its name yin-kuo in Chinese), but these are very smelly, with an unpleasant odour, so are not so popular on the street! Gingko leaves are full of antioxidants and are widely used in pharmaceuticals and in complementary medicine.

Metasequoia (Metasequoia glyptostroboides or Dawn redwood) is found in China and was thought to be extinct until the 1940s, when identified by a botanist in Central China as identical to a 150 million year old fossil species similar to the giant redwoods found in America. It is a conifer but, unlike most is deciduous, losing its needles in winter (as do larches). You can see examples locally in Bedford Park.


Wollemia (Wollemia nobilis or Wallemi pine), was known from fossils up to 200 million years old, but the latest fossils known were over 2 million years ago. However, in 1994, a stand of these pines was discovered in a deep gulley in Wollemi National Park in Australia. Since then seeds have been grown, and Wollemi pines are planted throughout the world. The pines are frost tolerant, so have been planted as far north as Inverewe gardens in the Scottish Highlands here in the UK.

Dr Rumsey gave a wonderful insight into these magnificent trees, and it was really great to know that – even in our digital age – new or hidden treasures of the natural world are still being studied and discovered around the world.

An afternoon well spent!