'Tis the Season to be Jolly

Skyrail Nature Diary: December 2005

Summer has arrived in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests, and the festive flowers of the Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) are adding a special Christmas touch to the region’s flora.

The Flame Tree’s red, bell-shaped flowers are hard to miss during the months leading into Christmas, standing out on the tree’s otherwise bare branches. However, this stunning specimen is an unassuming character during the winter months, when it sheds its leaves and remains bare until the flowers appear.

Occurring naturally in tropical rainforests, and more temperate environments from Cape York Peninsula to New South Wales, the Flame Tree can survive in conditions ranging from full, tropical sunlight to the occasional frost; it is also often planted in dry areas as it doesn’t require much water once established.

It is this versatility that has seen the Flame Tree become a widely, commercially cultivated species right along Australia’s east coast. Cultivated Flame Trees generally grow to approximately 15 metres high, whilst ‘wild’ trees can sometimes reach twice this size.

The Flame Tree’s flowers can cover the entire tree with a sea of red, lasting for two or three weeks before they are replaced by hairy fruits that store a cache of nutritious yellow seeds. Gloves should be used when handling the fruit, as they are covered by a mesh of fine hairs which have a similar effect to itching powder.

To safely handle the Flame Tree’s fruit, Aborigines would burn the hairs off and then eat the seeds either raw or roasted. When roasted, the seeds can be crushed to create a rich flour, which is now used as an ingredient at some local restaurants.

The Flame Tree is one of Australia’s most common species, and with good reason. Firstly, its flowers and hardy nature have ensured widespread domestic cultivation; some specimens have even been successfully grown in the Adelaide region. Secondly, the Flame Tree produces a soft timber that is not suitable for woodworking, so it was never a major target for loggers, thus ensuring that its native population has thrived.

The best way to see the fruits and flowers of Australia’s Tropical Rainforests is on Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Guests travel just metres above the rainforest canopy in Skyrail’s six person gondola cabins before alighting at Skyrail’s mid-stations to explore and learn more from the forest floor.