Exploring the flora of Cape York

This article is extracted from Yuruga Newsletter
Vol 15 No 1 (January 2007)

Here at Yuruga Nursery, we’ve been roaming Cape York Peninsula for over 25 years, collecting and recording the flora of this fantastic wilderness situated right on our doorstep.

Plants from the Cape make fantastic plants in gardens and landscapes, not only for their intrinsic beauty, but also because a large proportion of them are extremely tough and hardy in cultivation. This is no doubt due to the harsh climate to which they are adapted. Cape York Peninsula has a pronounced tropical monsoonal climate; in other words it is very hot and dry for about 9 months of the year, and then for 3 months it is very hot and wet. Plants have to be tough to survive (and thrive) in such extremes.

It’s common for people who have never travelled on the Cape to assume that the vegetation is dense tropical rainforest throughout, and to get a huge shock on their first visit when they find that they can drive virtually the whole way to Bamaga without seeing any rainforest at all! In fact, the main route up the centre of the Cape passes through open sclerophyll forest for pretty well the entire journey, with the only relief being the gallery rainforests along the creek and river crossings, and larger patches of scrub towards the Tip.

So, the traveller could easily form the view that the Cape is hot, dry and dusty, and that the flora is dull and boring. However, look more closely, take a few side tracks, and a whole world of amazing and phenomenal flora is revealed.

The Cape is actually home to a wide variety of plant habitats, from open sclerophyll forest to dense rainforest, from vast heathlands to fantastic wetlands, from windswept headlands to pristine wild rivers. The purpose of this article is to give you a glimpse into the huge diversity of flora on the Cape, and to give you an insight into where some of the plants that we sell in the nursery come from in the wild.

Eucalyptus phoenicea
Eucalyptus phoenicea

Starting your journey through the Cape from the south, you haven’t got far to go before you pass through the territory of two of Queensland’s most fantastic eucalypts. The dry stony hills in the Palmer River area of the southern Peninsula are home to the Lemon Scented Ironbark (Eucalyptus staigeriana). Crush the leaves and experience the most amazing lemon scent – pure heaven! If you travel via Cooktown and the Battle Camp Road, you will pass through a lovely stand of the bright orange-flowered gum tree Scarlet Gum (Eucalyptus phoenicea). What a stunningly beautiful flower, and a great tree for tropical gardens.

The shady gallery rainforests along the creeks and rivers of the Cape are a welcome relief from the heat, and a great place to stop for a cuppa. Most Cape York watercourses are lined with beautiful paperbarks – usually Melaleuca leucadendra or the silver-leafed Melaleuca argentea. Chances are there’ll also be the Mango Pine (Barringtonia calyptrata) and its smaller cousin the Freshwater Mangrove (Barringtonia acutangula). A couple of Satinash species are very common along the watercourses of the Cape, particularly the Flaky Barked Satinash (Syzygium forte subsp potamophilum) and the River Cherry (Syzygium tierneyanum). You will also find the beautiful Weeping Tea Tree (Leptospermum madidum) with its lovely lime green foliage and smooth white sculptured trunk.

In bogs and soaks you will always find the Red Beech (Dillenia alata), the Native Lasiandra (Melastoma affine), the Swamp Satinash (Syzygium angophoroides), and various pandanus species (Screw Palms).

The open forests are dominated by various eucalypt species, one of the most prominent being Eucalyptus tetradonta. Here and there you will see the dark green Golden Bouquet Tree (Deplanchea tetraphylla) with its huge leaves and equally huge heads of bright yellow flowers. This spreading shady tree is known on the Cape as the ‘Wallaby Wireless Tree’ because wallabies are fond of the flowers and will often congregate under a flowering tree for a feed and the chance to catch up on the local wildlife gossip.

Banksia dentata
Banksia dentata

Dotted everywhere through the woodlands and heath country of the Cape are two signature plants: the Cape York Banksia (Banksia dentata), a small tree with twisted form and yellow banksia flowers, and Broad Leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca viridiflora), another small tree with papery bark and wonderful bottlebrush flowers which may be any shade from deep maroon, through delicate pastel pink, to salmon, cream, and even green. When you come across a patch of this beautiful melaleuca in flower, stop and go for a wander, and see how many different flower colours you can find.

The Golden Grevillea (Grevillea pteridifolia) is very common on the Cape, and a dominant plant in the heathlands is the Yellow Tea-Tree (Neofabricea myrtifolia), which makes a great shrub in your garden. You may find the Golden Penda (Xanthostemon chrysanthus) along some of the watercourses, but out on the windswept sand dunes of Temple Bay is the stunning (and very rare) Red Penda (Xanthostemon youngii) with its bright orange-red flowers.

Rainforests may be rare along the main road, but it’s worth the effort to take some roads less travelled. For instance, the road to Portland Roads passes through the rainforests of Iron Range, which is an absolute wonderland of lush tropical rainforest species. If you happen to be there at just the right time, the cascading new growth of the Cascading Bean (Maniltoa lenticellata) will literally take your breath away. Iron Range harbours a myriad of wonderful species including the Bamaga Satinash (Sygzium bamagense), the Fibrous Satinash (Syzygium fibrosum), the native Water Cherry (Syzygium aqueum), the delicate Syzygium puberulum, and just so much more. Two of these (Syzygium fibrosum and Syzygium aqueum) have delicious edible fruits which are making their mark in the emerging Bush Foods industry.

Gardenia scabrella
Gardenia scabrella

The flora of the Cape is so diverse and so fantastic that this article can only but scratch the surface. There’s just so many species that it’s impossible to do it justice, save to comment that many, many of the plants on our regular nursery stock list are from Cape York Peninsula since they make tough, hardy and very attractive plants in cultivation.

The final word, however, goes to two of our favourite Cape York plants, the Cape Plum (Flacourtia sp), and the Cape York gardenias. The Cape Plum is a simply gorgeous shrub, suitable for just about any situation. And the gardenias are just so beautiful! For instance, Gardenia scabrella is a neat, rounded shrub with beautiful large star-shaped white flowers, while its prostrate cousin Gardenia sp Glennie River is one of the very best groundcovers for tropical gardens. These hugely popular plants are just some of the hundreds of plant introductions made from Cape York Peninsula by Yuruga Nursery over the years.