It was the botanical equivalent of finding a herd of Tyrannosaurus rex living in the wild. While climbing in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in 1994, an Australian wildlife ranger discovered a grove of trees thought to have been extinct for millions of years. The Wollemi pines, as they were named, had survived 17 ice ages. They were a last tiny remnant of forests that had once blanketed much of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland. Nicknamed 'pinosaurs', their distinctively bubbly bark has been likened to Coco Pops breakfast cereal. Their nearest relatives are the Norfolk Island pine of the South Pacific, and the monkey puzzle tree. Now, more than a decade on, the Wollemi pine has been propagated and is to be offered for sale to the public. Nearly 300 individual saplings will be auctioned by Sotheby's in Sydney on Sunday, in a sale that has already attracted huge interest in Australia and overseas. The saplings were grown from cuttings taken from the wild trees. The exact location of the grove is a closely guarded secret, for fear of theft, vandalism or the introduction of disease. 'We've had inquiries from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Europe,' said Justin Miller, the chairman of Sotheby's in Australia. 'They are the panda of the plant world - they're very rare, and they've captured the public imagination. It has that feel of discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries.' The bidding for each tree will start at A$1,500 ($8,700), but Sotheby's thinks the saplings may eventually be sold for 10 times that amount. Conservationists believe that putting a commercial value on the species is the best way to preserve it. The young trees were propagated in a joint venture between a commercial nursery and Queensland's Department of Primary Industries. Despite their extreme rarity, botanists say Wollemi pines are relatively easy to care for. They thrive in direct or dappled sunlight and can withstand temperatures ranging from minus 5 to 45 degrees Celsius. Fully grown, they stand about 40 metres in height. They can be planted in the garden or used as indoor pot plants. The money from the sale - expected to be as much as A$750,000 - will be used to conserve the 100 Wollemi pines that exist in the wild, as well as other threatened-species projects around the world. Before their discovery by ranger David Noble, they were known only from 150 million-year-old fossils. The fact that they had survived the age of the dinosaurs and had remained hidden so close to Australia's largest city was hailed by botanists as nothing less than a miracle. It's a miracle that ordinary people will soon be able to share in.