Trees to 30(–40) m × 1.5(–2) m dbh. Crown of young trees densely conical or pyramidal, spreading and irregular in old trees; lower branches often layering over large areas in wild trees. Bark fibrous, grey-brown, longitudinally fissured and peeling in strips with age. Young branchlets slender, 1–1.2 mm across, pendulous, long on shaded shoots and young plants, shorter and more rigid in the upper crown and on branches in direct sun. Foliage of two types, juvenile and adult: juvenile leaves (rarely seen in cultivation) spirally arranged, decurrent, 1–2 mm long, apex free; adult leaves scale-like, spirally arranged, adpressed, imbricate, rhomboid in appearance, 1–1.5 × 1 mm, strongly keeled, with conspicuous scattered stomata. Pollen cones terminal, sessile, 4–6 × 2–2.5 mm, microsporophylls 10–15(–20), rhombic to triangular with two basal pollen sacs. Seed cones terminal on decurved, short branchlets, somewhat inconspicuous, 4–5(–8) mm long with 5–8(–10) spirally arranged fertile bracts. Seeds 5–8 per cone, ~rounded in cross section with a notched apex, light brown, base enclosed in a dry, papery epimatium. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011; Molloy 1995).
Distribution Australia Tasmania, predominantly in the south and west
Habitat River valleys, primarily as a riparian species in close proximity to watercourses at lower elevations, or else on steep slopes in temperate rainforest, from sea level to 1000 m asl. Often the dominant species in its habitat, common associates include Anopterus glandulosus, Eucryphia lucida, and Nothofagus cunninghamii.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Like so many other southern hemisphere conifers Huon Pine leads a double life. In its homeland it is a large, long-lived forest tree, with individuals to c. 40 m reported from the surviving fragments of the cool temperate rainforests that once covered western Tasmania (Debreczy & Rácz 2011); in the northern hemisphere it disguises itself as a small, irregularly branched, somewhat shrubby tree, rarely exceeding about 10 m and comparatively short-lived (Rushforth 1987). The species trades none of its beauty in this subterfuge, however, for even in its diminuitive guise it remains an elegant conifer, with widely arched branches, pendulous near their ends, bearing soft, feathery plumes of cypress-like foliage. Its beauty, however, was not what initially drew the attentions of European settlers – it was Huon Pine’s extremely versatile and useful timber: strong, durable, easily worked, lightweight, fragrant, and at one time plentiful.
Although the Dutch had landed on Tasmania in the 17th century, and James Cook in the 18th, rapid colonisation by the British only began in about 1803. The first meetings between Aboriginal Tasmanians and early European visitors had a terrible effect on the former as new diseases were introduced, but the British colonisation would prove the hammer blow, with some modern authors concluding that the effects on the indigenous population amounted to genocide (Wikipedia 2022). Ecologists might draw some parallels with the impact of colonisation on wild populations of Huon Pine. The river systems of western Tasmania soon became the setting for a booming industry: ‘pining’. The ‘piners’, as they were known, initially came in small numbers from the larger settlements like Hobart; soon they were joined by mass forced labour in the form of convicts sent from Britain; finally came the freelance piners who dominated the industry through the middle c. 50 years of the 19th century. Great fortunes could be made from Huon Pine and the piners have been likened to prospectors, and the rush to claim timber rights to the land-grabs associated with a gold rush (the story has also been likened, more convincingly, to the mass felling of Kauris in New Zealand and Redwoods in California). Garry Kerr and Harry McDermott have co-authored an account of this gold rush, The Huon Pine Story (Kerr & McDermott 2004), an authoritative if dense treatise on the industry which strips away much of the romanticism that had been allowed to grow up around it. For the early piners venturing into very remote regions, the existence was dangerous, lonely, and often very isolated. The insatiable appetite for Huon Pine wood would take its toll, however, for by the 1870s there was legitimate concern about the sustainability of the industry and a government committee convened in 1879 concluded there should be a ban on felling, which was implemented in 1882, though an amount of illegal felling continued as is always the case in such scenarios. The industry had already come to a natural slow-down, however, as the most accessible forests had already been cleared of good trees and there was a considerable supply of sawlogs available. Pining eventually trickled to a halt by the mid-1940s (Kerr & McDermott 2004).
Despite the brutal assult on Huon Pine, by the early 21st century the IUCN conservation assessment for the species is ‘least concern’, reflecting the very encouraging rates of regeneration that have occurred in the now-protected forests (Farjon 2017). Nevertheless, as Debreczy & Rácz (2011) point out, full recovery – to the condition the forests were in prior to c. 1803 – will take many centuries, partly because even in its wild state Huon Pine is very slow-growing. It is widely acknowledged that individual trees can live for at least 2000 years, and one group of wild trees is thought to be a clonal colony that has been extant for about 12,000 years (Earle 2021).
Huon Pine first came to the attention of western botany after Allan Cunningham collected it in 1810; it was was cultivated at Kew during the 1840s (Bean 1981) though the exact timing and circumstances of its introduction are unknown. In 1845 Hooker named the species (as Dacrydium franklinii) for Sir John Franklin, then recently retired from the Govenorship of Tasmania (Plants of the World Online 2022). The common name ‘Huon Pine’ is taken from the Huon River system, part of the species’s native range. It never made a strong impression in gardens but has been around, though never common, ever since. It was afforded full honours in the second edition of Veitch’s Manual of the Coniferae (Kent 1900) but the only mention of it in The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland is as a footnote below the entry for Cupressus (Elwes & Henry 1906–1913). Perhaps the latter authors considered it too much of a shrub to merit attention. In the UK and Ireland the largest trees on record all hail from the south coast of Ireland, in gardens such as Fota (a 12 m tree in 1987, since lost), Ilnacullin (one 12 m tree in 2002, possibly lost, and several others c. 10 m) and Derreen (9 m in 2019) (Tree Register 2022). Away from this very mild and very wet coast, the next largest, remarkably, is a tree at Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire, north east Scotland. Probably planted in the 1930s, its survival through some incredibly cold winters (in what is generally one of the coldest parts of the UK) is something of an enigma (C. Pirnie pers. comm. 2022), but it is perhaps in keeping with a general trend that is emerging in northern gardens that many antipodean plants are hardier than tradition would have us believe.
Numerous other examples, typically in the range of 3–6 m, are scattered in collections throughout the UK and Ireland (Tree Register 2022). Elsewhere it succeeds given the benign conditions associated with oceanic climates, such as may be found in the Pacific North West of North America, coastal fringes of north west Europe, New Zealand, and in Tasmania itself, where it has long been sold in the nursery trade as an ornamental (J. Cane pers. comm. 2022). It will also survive in warmer mediterranean regions provided it has adequate access to moisture – it is not drought tolerant, nor will it tolerate a truly continental regime. Propagation by seed and semi-ripe heel cuttings is straightforward, but growth of young plants can be very slow in nursery conditions (pers. obs.).