Tasmania is known for its exquisite rainforest timbers, and the most famous of these is undoubtedly Huon pine.
Huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) is a native conifer that grows in the wet temperate forests of Tasmania’s south west wilderness. This is an extremely slow growing tree, with a growth rate of just 1mm per year. Huon pine is thought to live up to 3000 years and is Australia’s oldest living tree.
Huon pine was first discovered by European settlers on the banks of the Huon River, south of Hobart. The fallen timbers were buried in mud, but had not rotted, and it soon became evident that this durable timber was a perfect material for wooden boat building.
This durability is due to Huon pine’s high oil content, which makes the wood highly resilient to rot, insects and disease. This essential oil—methyl eugenol—also gives Huon its distinctive fragrance.
Captain James Kelly was the first European to sight rich stands of Huon pine growing around the Gordon River, and this discovery became one of the main motivations for establishing the penal colony at Sarah Island. Between 1822 and 1833, Sarah Island was a centre for Huon pine harvesting and shipbuilding, using convict labour to build more than 100 ships.
Pining and piners
The tough and resourceful men who first harvested Huon pine became known as ‘piners’. These men spent months at a time in the wilderness, harvesting trees with axes and crosscut saws, and hauling them into the rivers using block and tackle, before floating them to Strahan for processing. Pining became a family business for many locals, and several of these families, including the Abels, Dohertys, Cranes and Morrisons, still live in Strahan today.
The practice of felling living Huon pine ended in the 1970s. The tree is now a protected species and only three sawmills in the world are licensed to cut it. Today, Huon pine is mainly sourced from stockpiles gathered from areas flooded for hydro-electric schemes. Current stockpiles are expected to last for another 100 years.
A prized and protected timber
Huon pine is one of the world’s most highly valued craft timbers. Its pale yellow colour, distinctive fragrance and beautiful fine grain make it a perfect material for woodturning and fine furniture making. Artefacts made from Huon pine range from stunning wooden boats to fine furniture, household goods and artworks.
Huon pine still grows in around 10,000 hectares of protected habitat in south west Tasmania, most of which is contained within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.