Rainforest Umbrella

Skyrail Nature Diary: March 2006

Rainforest resident, popular houseplant or notorious weed; however you label it, the ubiquitous Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla) is hard to miss in Tropical North Queensland during February and March.

Taking its common name from its Umbrella-shaped leaf formations, the Umbrella Tree grows naturally throughout Queensland’s tropical and sub-tropical areas, namely from Rockhampton to Cape York Peninsula, and is also found in the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea.

This is a hardy, fast growing species and its attractive leaves and fruits have seen it widely propagated for domestic purposes throughout Queensland and in New South Wales (NSW). In ideal conditions, the Umbrella Tree will proliferate and unfortunately its aggressive root system is capable of ‘strangling’ other plants and any underground pipes and drains. This can make it a problematic plant both environmentally and domestically, and has led to the species being classified as a weed in NSW where it has overpowered many local species of flora.

The Umbrella Tree is an epiphyte and usually starts its life growing out of a basket fern, tree canopy or on a rock. Its seeds are disseminated by birds, who love the raspberry-like red fruits; once the seeds have germinated, the Umbrella Tree quickly sends its roots to the forest floor, using the host tree or rock as an anchor point. This species can grow up to 20 metres in height.

Umbrella Trees are particularly easy to spot at this time of year, presenting a bounty of fruits and flowers. These fruits are a favourite with the colourful rainbow lorikeets, who get ‘drunk’ on the nectar. The fruits grow out of the top of the tree on groups of stems up to one metre long, giving the plant its other common name: the Octopus Tree.


While the Umbrella Tree’s fruits are its most eye-catching feature at the moment, it is the less conspicuous bark that the Aborigines sought for several reasons. Boiling the bark in water would produce a liquid suitable for treating sores, and toothaches were never a problem either, as chewing the bark releases a natural anaesthetic to alleviate any such aches and pains.

Forget fishing rods and lures too – the bark of the Umbrella Tree also made catching dinner a simple task. Pulping and releasing the bark into a river would de-oxygenate the water, stunning nearby fish and making for an easy catch.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway glides just metres above the canopy of Australia’s World Heritage protected Tropical Rainforests, providing a unique opportunity to view the Umbrella Tree’s stunning flowering displays.