Festive Flowers

Skyrail Nature Diary: December 2006

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

The Flame Tree and Black Bean are both hardy rainforest species which, in addition to their stunning floral displays, makes them popular inclusions in parks and gardens around Cairns and Tropical North Queensland.

The Black Bean, also known as the Moreton Bay Chestnut, belongs to the Fabaceae family, one of the largest families of flowering plants. It is a common shade tree around Cairns, and occurs naturally throughout rainforests from NSW to the tip of Cape York Peninsula and Vanuatu.

Bursting forth between September and December with abundant red and yellow flowering displays, the Black Bean’s outward beauty nearly manages to overshadow an impressive resume. The tree yields a beautiful hardwood, not to mention an important chemical compound that is now being used to develop anti-cancer and anti-HIV treatments.


The Aborigines also valued the Black Bean, carefully preparing its toxic seeds to source vital protein, fat and fibre. Seeds were also crushed and sprinkled into pools of water to attract and catch freshwater shrimp.

Meantime, 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.


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 numerous seed pods that store a cache of nutritious yellow seeds. Gloves should be used when handling the seeds, 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 seeds, 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.

Combine the striking red display of the Flame Tree with the Black Bean’s spectacular colour combinations, and the summer months are some of the most visually stunning in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests and around Cairns.