The Rainforest Palms

Skyrail Nature Diary: December 2008


The Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforests of Queensland are home to more than 3,000 plant species, but none embody the word ‘tropical’ more than the palm trees.

The palms are a much admired and loved member of the rainforest. They grow from sea-level to high altitude, on the forest floor and up into the canopy. Their evergreen foliage and rich array of fruits and flowers create a visual delight for all visitors to the forest, and a bountiful food supply for many animals.

Millions of years ago palms originated in India, before spreading across the northern and southern supercontinents of Gondwana and Laurasia. They have inhabited parts of the Australian continent for more than 55 million years.

The Wet Tropics Rainforests are home to many palms, the most spectacular of which can be seen from Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and up close at Skyrail’s mid-stations. Perhaps the most recognisable is the Fan Palm (Licuala ramsayi), which is so-named for the appearance of its pleated leaf segments, which resemble a Chinese fan.

The Fan Palm is a particularly slow growing species, which prefers shady areas with poor drainage. Although you will see many examples of small fan palms in the forest (and throughout gardens across Cairns), they can reach heights of over 20m with leaves up to 2m wide.

Various species of the Licuala genus can be found throughout Asia and the South Pacific, but the Australian Fan Palm is endemic to Tropical North Queensland and is the only member of this genus to exist in Australia.

  

The Alexandra Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) is another commonly seen species on Skyrail. Growing in dense groves, the Alexandra Palm is found in lowland and highland areas and flourishes in wet, swampy soils that are prone to periodic flooding.

A tall graceful palm, the Alexandra can grow to 25 metres tall (80 feet) with a leaf spread of 2m. Its smooth grey trunk is marked with ‘rings’ which are scars from previous leaves. Its flowers are presented on creamy stalks, which appear below the crown shaft, at the base of the leaves. Flowers are followed by fruits, which become bright red when ripe (December – January) and are a popular food source for many animals including the fruit pigeons, flying fox and sulphur-crested cockatoo.

A grove of Alexandra Palms can be seen flourishing at the base of the granite outcrop at Red Peak Station and growing in the gardens at Smithfield Terminal.