Ferns: A Link to the Past

Skyrail Nature Diary: May 2006

Dating back more than 300 million years, ferns are the most ancient and prolific plant family in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.

Ranging from the ancient Tassel Fern to the high-flying Basket Fern and majestic Tree Fern, there are over 240 species of ferns found in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests. You might call this a fern hotspot; 65% of Australia’s ferns are found in the Wet Tropics World Heritage area, 46 of which are endemic to the region.

A popular feature in tourism imagery is the Tree Fern, of which there are several species in Australia's Tropical Rainforests; one of the more commonly-sighted examples is Cooper’s Tree Fern (Cythea cooperi).

Fast-growing, good-looking and hardy too, it’s no wonder Cooper’s Tree Fern is abundant in the rainforest and gardens along Australia’s east coast. Growing up to 15 metres tall, this fern sports elegant, attractive fronds which grow from the top of the plant, hence its other common name: the Lacy Tree Fern.

The Common Tassel Fern (Huperzia phlegmaria) is the most primitive fern in the rainforest. A member of the ‘club moss’ family, which first appeared more than 300 million years ago, this fern is but a miniature reminder of its ancient origins, as club mosses originally grew as large as trees!

The Common Tassel Fern grows as an epiphyte, and its natural environment includes the rainforests of North Queensland and the wet tropical climates of Asia, the Pacific and Africa. The Common Tassel Fern’s spectacular leaf arrangements also make it a popular hanging plant, with masses of leaves spilling downwards up to one metre in length.

Every level of the rainforest features various fern species, growing in numerous shapes and sizes; one of the easiest to spot from Skyrail is the Basket Fern, which often grows on tree branches high in the rainforest canopy.

Often mistaken for a huge bird's nest, the Basket Fern (Drynaria rigidula) usually grows as an epiphyte, meaning it uses the host tree for support but is not parasitic. Rather, this fern catches and stores leaf litter which mulches in the ‘basket’, providing nutrients for the plant and the perfect micro-ecosystem for up to 500 species of insects and spiders.

Ferns are a reminder of the rainforest’s ancient origins, providing a virtual window on how the world once was, which is one of the contributing factors to the World Heritage listing of Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.

Skyrail, a 7.5km cableway travelling through the Barron Gorge National Park from Smithfield to Kuranda, provides the best opportunity to view the myriad of Fern species in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.