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EnviroNorth > Cape York > Plants and Animals > Plants of the Tip of Cape York

Plants of the Tip of Cape York

By Greg Calvert, James Cook University, Townsville

Cape York lily
Cape York lily flowers to great effect during the wet season  Photo: Greg Calvert 

Pajinka

The tip of Cape York is traditionally known as Pajinka, the name of the Aboriginal-owned resort just 400 metres from the very tip. You walk from either the Lodge or camping ground to Frangipani Beach, which is, of course, Australia's northern-most beach (on the mainland).

Frangipani Beach is named after the numerous native frangipanis (Cerbera manghas). Also on Frangipani Beach are numerous Wongai plums (Manilkara kauki), Jam Fruit (Terminalia muelleri), Red Coondoo (Mimusops elengi), Indian Beech (Pongamia pinnata), Cottonwood (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and Asteromyrtus brassii (no common name) formerly Melaleuca brassii.

Click on the links to see a list of research findings for these species.

To get to the tip from Frangipani Beach, you can walk along the beach at low tide past a nice stand of the Stilt-rooted Mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa) or walk along the spine of the ridge that runs right along the northern tip. On this walk, you pass the screw pine (Pandanus tectorius), vines such as Vandasina retusa (formerly Hardenbergia retusa) and goats-foot Convolulus (Ipomea pes-caprae), beefwood (Grevillea parallela), native ebony (Diospyros gemmenen), cowley myrtle (Myrtella retusa -formerly Fenzlia retusa) and a very unusual variety of Dolichandrone. There are a small number of stunted mangroves close to the famous sign which reads "You are standing at the northern-most point of the Australian continent".

Lady apple
Lady apple: a native Cape York tree  Photo: Greg Calvert

Using a compass, I was able to determine that the northern-most tree in Australia is a fairly battered specimen of the grey (or white) mangrove (Avicennia marina). At the end of the wet season (March-April), the majority of these plants are flowering or fruiting although around June-July numerous Cooktown orchids (Dendrobium biggibum ) flower.

Beaches

There are numerous beautiful beaches on northern Cape York and many extend so far it is difficult to see the other end. Mangroves often colonise beach sand although these are only a minor component. Some areas have thick stands of the beach she-oak (Casuarina equisetifolia) depending on underground seepage of fresh water. Other important trees include the wongai plum (Manilkara kauki), sea almond (Terminalia catappa), jam fruit (Terminalia muelleri), screw pines (Pandanus tectorius), cottonwood (Hibiscus tiliaceus), Alexandrian laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum) and an attractive shrub called Pemphis acidula . Coconuts are common.

Click on the links to see a list of research findings for these species.

Mangroves

There are more than 30 types of mangrove on northern Cape York, however, because of the way species occur in distinct zones, people are often under the impression that northern mangrove forests simply consist of the stilt-rooted mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa). Other interesting species include the orange mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza) whose long fruit were traditionally an important food, the myrtle mangrove (Osbornia octodonta) whose crushed leaves can be rubbed on the skin as an insect repellant and the mangrove palm (Nypa fruticans) which occurs in reasonable numbers at the mouth of the Jardine River.

Mangrove forest

Rhizophora mangrove forest near the mouth of Crystal Creek, Jardine River Photo: Greg Calvert

Swamps

The swamps of Cape York are the most beautiful places to visit although care must be taken to avoid feral pigs and snapping handbags (crocodiles). In many cases, canopy trees stand on miniature little islands, each surrounded by a moat. Common canopy trees are the swamp box (Lophostemon suaveolens), paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra) and the beautiful golden guinea tree (Dillenia alata). The trunks of these are often decorated with climbing ferns, Rhaphodophora, and the carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes mirabilis). Pandanus are common and in some areas, palms are also evident. Notable amongst these is the Niugini Palm (Gulubia costata), an undescribed licuala endemic to this region and a newly recognised Alexandra Palm (Archontophoenix tucker) named after the late Robert Tucker of Townsville Palmetum fame. Water-lilies are common.

Heathlands and sandy floodplains

Heathlands, though difficult to walk through, are botanically very interesting. The most common trees are the Epacrids: Leucopogon laverackii and Leucopogon capensis, the former is named after Bill Lavarack the orchid expert. These trees are often festooned with orchids such as Bulbophyllum baileyi and Dendrobium rigidum as well as numerous ant plants, button orchids and rattleskulls (Dischidia major).

Also in these heaths is a new species of wattle with affinities to Acacia crassicarpa. The understory can be a tangle of banks' mat-rush (Lomandra banksii) and Chain fruit (Alyxia spicata), especially on the edges. The sandy floodplains are sparse but very intricate. Dominant trees are the beautiful Asteromyrtus symphyocarpa (golden flowers) and Asteromyrtus brassii (red flowers) as well as tropical banksias (Banksia dentata) and the fine leaved Thryptomene oligandra. The ground layer is even more fascinating, covered in delicate carnivorous sundews (Drosera indica, Drosera spatulata and Drosera petiolaris) and bladderworts (Utricularia). In the right places, the branched comb fern (Schizaea dichotoma) can be seen, as can trigger plants (Stylidium) and pitcher plants (Nepenthes mirabilis).

Rainforest

A large strip of rainforest extends north from Bamaga nearly to the tip of Cape York (Pajinka). This rainforest is unusual in that it contains large numbers of Niugini plants and animals and it is this unusual combination Australia and Niugini which makes the Lockerbie scrub world famous. I find the immense diversity of plant life almost overwhelming and a botanist from the Queensland Herbarium once told me he thinks up to one-third of the plants may be new species or new records of species for the area.

It's hard to know if this is an exaggeration but we do have new species of python trees (Asteromyrtus), Xanthostemon, Calophyllum and this is one of the few places in Australia where the famous Niugini timber tree quella or kwila (Instia bijuga) occurs. The understory is quite sparse so, although the canopy is fairly thick, you have good visibility through the place allowing you to spot spectacular trees such as the red paper-barked satin ash (Syzygium bungadinnia) at considerable distance. The canopy has a large number of palms and tall pandanus present, interwoven with the enormous trunks of the matchbox bean vine (Entada phaseoloides). During the dry season, the canopy opens in places with deciduous trees such as the red kapok tree (Bombax ceiba) and coral trees (Erythrina variegata). Even the enormous butteressed green-fruited figs (Ficus variegata) are often without leaves during the dry.

Lockerbie scrub

Lockerbie scrub, with pandanus in the centre Photo: Greg Calvert

Woodlands

Woodlands tend to be the most common habitat throughout the area, however, they do vary considerably in composition. The most common tress are bloodwoods (mostly Corymbia novoguinensis and C. intermedia) with regular stands of the Darwin stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). Near the tip of Cape York is a single isolated stand of the white-trunked poplar gum (Eucalyptas platyphylla formerly E. alba).

Other tree species are the native hopbush (Dodonea polyandra), Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda) and lady apple (Syzygium suborbiculare). During the wet season (Dec-March), the ground is literally pink with the massed display of the Cape York lily (Curcuma australasica), however, these die back during the dry season. Stands of cabbage tree palms (Livistona muelleri) are also dotted throughout the countryside.

Monsoonal vine-thicket

Growing around the Pajinka lodge itself and on many steep hillsides are complex vine thickets. By far the most common tree is the yellow box-penda (Welchiodendron longivalve). Also common is the booncherry or little gooseberry tree (Buchanania arborescens), the jam fruit (Terminalia muelleri) and the bizzare spiny yellow-wood (Xanthoxylum sp.).

Flowering on Northern Cape York Peninsula in July-August

  • Parasitic (Balanophora fungosa)
  • Red kapok tree (Bombax ceiba)
  • Booncherry (Buchanania arborescens)
  • Rose butternut (Blepharocarya involucrigera)
  • Caper bush (Capparis sp.)
  • Yellow kapok tree (Cochlospermum gillivraei)
  • Cooktown orchid (Dendrobium biggibum)
  • Golden orchid (Dendrobium discolor)
  • Golden guinea tree (Dillenia alata)
  • Sundews (Drosera spatulata)
  • Coral Tree (Erythrina variegata)
  • Fern-leaf grevillea (Grevillea pteridifolia)
  • Beefwood (Grevillea parallela)
  • Bushman's clothes-peg (Grevillea glauca)
  • Cottonwood (Hibiscus tiliaceus)
  • Broad-leafed paperbark (Melaleuca viridiflora - both red and green flower types)
  • Blue-tongue (Melastoma affine)
  • Yellow-dye (Morinda reticulata)
  • Burney bean (Mucuna gigantea)
  • Ant plant (Myrmecodia platytyrea)
  • Yellow heath-myrtle (Neofabricia myrtifolia)
  • Nonda plum (Parinari nonda)
  • Pemphis acidula
  • Native dracaena (Pleomele angustifolia)
  • Lilypilly (Syzygium sp. possibly angophoroides)
  • Lady apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)
  • Yellow box-penda (Welchiodendron longivalve) and
  • Native frangipani (Cerbera manghas).

Fruiting on Northern Cape York Peninsula in July-August

  • Lemon aspen (Acronychia sp.)
  • Alexandrian Laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum)
  • Native hop bush (Dodonaea polyandra)
  • Blue quandong (Elaeocarpus angustifolius)
  • Green fruited fig (Ficus variegata)
  • Niugini palm (Gulubia costata)
  • Wongai plum (Manilkara kauki)
  • Cowley myrtle (Myrtella retusa)
  • Laurel (Litsea glauca)
  • Heath plant (Neoroepara banksii)
  • Emu apple (Owenia vernicosa)
  • Quinine bush (Petalostigma pubescens)
  • False gardenia (Randia sessilis)
  • Peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifida) and
  • Jam fruit (Terminalia muelleri).

Wongai destiny

The wongai plum Manilkara kauki (Formerly Mimusops brownii) Family Sapotaceae

The wongai (pronounced wong-eye) plum is a common tree of islands and coastal plant communities of Cape York anywhere from Cooktown north. The trees can reach heights of up to 20 metres although they are often seen as fairly stunted, windblown specimens. They are capable of great age — one specimen is more than 130 years old — and the wood is highly sought after for carving. The leaves are spatula-shaped (spathulate) and are clustered in whorls at the ends of branches. The tops of the leaves are a dusty green and appear silver underneath.

Like most members of the Sapote family, the plant produces a milky white sap but the fruit is edible - one of the few exceptions to the rule stating plants with white sap should never be eaten. The fruit are egg-shaped, about the size of the last joint in your thumb and turn bright red when ripe. They need to be stored for several days to allow the latex to be broken down. When ripe, the fruit darken and become soft. When fully ripe, the Wongai Plum tastes almost exactly the same as the commercial date.

This tree is famous on Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands where it is considered a delicacy. Its popularity is evident from the Wongai Hotel on Horn Island and the Wongai Sporting Complex on Thursday Island. On Thursday Island (TI) there is a legend which states that whoever eats the fruit of the Wongai tree on TI is destined to return. August to September is considered wongai season.

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Contacts

Dr Greg Calvert
Consultant
ERISS
Tel: 08 8979 9789

Mobile: 0416 360 155

3 Melaleuca Close
JABIRU , NT 0886