Rainforest Umbrella

Skyrail Nature Diary: March 2007

Australia’s Tropical Rainforests are thriving in response to the annual ‘green season’, and one of the most spectacular sights in the canopy during February and March is the Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla).

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 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 throughout the region at this time of year, with their bounty of raspberry-like red fruits. 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.