Vexing Vines

Skyrail Nature Diary: June 2005

At a glance the Lawyer Vine (Calamus nuelleri) may look like a harmless native palm, but don't be fooled - once this vine has you in its grasp, escape can be difficult!

Commonly known as the 'Wait-a-while palm' or 'Rattan cane', this species is found throughout Australia's World Heritage listed Tropical Rainforests. The Lawyer Vine's leaves look like normal palm leaves, but closer inspection reveals sharp thorns covering both sides. Opposite each leaf grow leafless stems, called 'flagella', covered with large thorns.

It is these flagella, or thorny arms, which are dangerous to the unobservant bushwalker. The thorns easily latch onto clothing or skin and are very difficult to remove, hence the common nickname 'Wait-a-while'!

These flagella also provide the Lawyer Cane's means for survival; the large thorns catch onto surrounding rainforest plants, allowing the Lawyer Vine to 'climb' up their neighbouring plants and reach the rainforest canopy. Breaking through the canopy and accessing its vital light supply, the Lawyer Vine can then flourish with new leaf growth.

The Lawyer Vine starts its life as a cluster of a few canes on the forest floor. These canes grow into stems, which are enclosed in a prickly and hairy outer casing. The stems grow in tangled groups, sometimes up to a couple of hundred metres in length.

While proving a reliable source of frustration, not to mention cuts and scratches, Lawyer Vine was a most useful plant for the region's indigenous peoples. Not only was Lawyer Cane a reliable source of fresh water, but the smoother, more mature cane stems were used for weaving, tying and as supports for building shelters. The leaves were also used, providing a waterproof roof for shelters, and even the spiky stems had a purpose, being used to secure the roof in place.

Aborigines would also use the Lawyer Cane to climb trees and catch sleeping mammals or snakes in basket ferns. In modern-day lumberjack style, they would wrap the cane around the tree and hop upwards, while keeping the cane stretched tight as a counterbalance.

Other uses for this versatile plant included making traps for fish and mammals, nooses for crocodiles and more recently producing the popular Rattan cane furniture.

Related species of the Lawyer Vine include the 'Yellow Lawyer Cane' and imaginatively-named 'Hairy Mary' and 'Vicious Hairy Mary'.

Australia's Tropical Rainforests are home to more than 3,000 different plant species from 210 families. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway provides guests with the perfect opportunity to view rainforest flora from above the canopy, before alighting at rainforest mid-stations to learn more from the forest floor.