Figs, Flames and Mangos - The Rainforest hots up!

Skyrail Nature Diary: November 2004

It’s warming up in Tropical North Queensland and as we roll into summer there are a multitude of new fruits and flowers beginning to appear in Australia’s World Heritage listed Tropical Rainforests.

Species that are becoming particularly active in November are the Flame Trees, Mango Pines and Figwoods, with each adding their own bright splash of red, white and orange to the rainforest’s canopy and undergrowth.

The Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) is probably Australia’s most widely known and cultivated rainforest species. Easily recognisable at this time of year thanks to its multitude of tiny, bell-shaped, red flowers, the Flame Tree is arguably the most spectacular of all of Australia’s native trees.

A hardy species, the Flame Tree is most suited for temperate to tropical areas and can be found growing along most of Australia’s east coast; it has also been propagated in many other countries including South Africa and America.

Considered a small to medium sized tree, the Flame Tree can grow up to 35 metres high and generally loses its leaves just prior to the on-set of flowering; the lack of foliage making the distinctive red flowers even more visually impressive.

The flowers will gradually be replaced by leathery seed pods which contain hundreds of seeds encased in a ‘capsule’ of irritant hairs. If handling the seed pods it is recommended you wear gloves, as the hairs have a similar effect to itching powder.

November also heralds the arrival of the Mango Pines’ beautiful, fluffy white blooms. The Mango Pine (Barringtonia calyptrata), so called for its soft white timber and mango-smelling fruits, also has another interesting name, due to the scent of its wood, and that is the Corned-beef Wood Tree.

Growing in Australia’s lowland coastal rainforests from Ingham north, this attractive species is also a native to Papua New Guinea and the Aru Islands. Its blooms have a pervasive honey scent and are heavy with nectar, making them a popular food source for the rainforest’s lorikeets, insects and bats. The Mango Pines’ flowers will be replaced by large blue-bloomed fruits, which smell of mangos, and are a food source for the rare Southern Cassowary.

The final rainforest plant in focus this month is one of the Fig species, Ficus virgata. There are approximately 1,000 different fig species around the world and many of them are found in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.

The Ficus virgata is one of the ‘strangler figs’ which means it wraps its roots around a host tree eventually ‘strangling’ it to death. These figs often have bright fruits which are a favourite with rainforest birds, which in turn play an invaluable role in the seed dispersal of the plant.

The birds deposit the figs’ seeds in the rainforest canopy and a percentage of these are successful in growing and dropping their roots down to the forest floor, using the host plant as a ‘trunk’. Once the figs’ roots are secured in the forest soil, they expand and thicken around their host tree and in time ‘strangle’ them.

There are many excellent examples of strangler figs to be found throughout Australia’s Tropical Rainforests, and they can be viewed up close from the rainforest boardwalk on Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in Cairns.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, Tropical North Queensland’s most visited attraction, glides just metres above the rainforest canopy providing spectacular views of the rainforest, Cairns, the Coral Sea and fringes of the Great Barrier Reef and the Cairns Highlands. A 7.5km journey between its Smithfield and Kuranda Terminals, Skyrail has two rainforest mid-stations, Red Peak and Barron Falls, allowing guests to alight and learn more on complimentary Ranger guided tours and at the Rainforest Interpretive Centre.