The Majesty of the Rainforest

The Majesty of the Rainforest 

 By Gary Opit

The thick layer of tree top branches and interlacing vines of the rainforest creates a canopy, which the sunlight can hardly penetrate, thirty to fifty metres above the ground. These are decorated with spectacular staghorn, elkhorn and birds nest ferns. The tall, straight tree trunks are usually covered with climbing plants and orchids, ferns, mosses, and lichens. Some tree species, particularly the Yellow Carabeen, have distinctive flanging plank buttressed roots that help support the tree. Vines hang in loops and twisted spirals.

A middle canopy, usually half to three quarters the height of the tree tops, is made out of Bangalow Palms and smaller trees adapted to shadier conditions. A third canopy, 2 to 3 metres above the ground, is composed of walking stick palms, palm lilies and rainforest tree seedlings. Because of alack of sunlight reaching the ground there are only scattered lilies and ferns amongst the leaf litter.

Bangalow Palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) Photo by Wendy Bithell    

When a large tree falls it creates a gap in the rainforest canopy and fast growing, short-lived pioneer species, Bleeding Hearts and Blackwood Wattles, along other species, dominate for many years. Growing among them are the seedlings of the mature rainforest trees, Black Bean, Red Bean,Booyong, Tulipwood, Rosewood, Red, White and Onion Cedar, Quandong Marara,Sassafras, Churnwood, Tamarind, Laurel, Walnut, Ebony, Carabeen, Beech and Giant Stinging Tree, all competing to reach the light. These forest giants are then subject to the enveloping growth of the giant strangling figs.

Strangler fig in the lowland subtropical rainforest near Byron Bay. Photo by Greg Meeks

Giant strangling figs are the most spectacular trees of the rainforest. The Moreton Bay Fig grows to an enormous size with very large leaves. The Green-leaved Moreton Bay Fig, Deciduous Fig and Small-leaved Figs are also common in this rainforest. Unlike other trees that begin life as a seed growing up through the soil, the strangling fig begins life in the canopy.


After a bird, possum or flying fox has eaten the fig fruit,the seed passes through the gut of the animal, and ends up with some nutrients dropped onto a branch. The fig’s roots can take nutrients and water from the air and slowly grows down the sides of the host tree until it reaches the ground. Over hundreds of years the fig tree’s roots envelope the host tree which eventually dies from competition for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients.As the host tree rots away all of its nutrients are funnelled down the hollow interior of the fig tree which can then grow into the largest tree in the forest. The hollow centre is slowly filled with more descending roots which merge to produce a solid trunk.


The world’s most beautiful tree is surely the Flame Tree that in Spring drops all of its leaves & replaces them with bright redbell-shaped flowers. Now widely planted in gardens and as a street tree, it looks particularly spectacular as a scarlet tree among the bright green of the forest. Its relatives, the Red-fruited Kurrajong and Lacebark also shed their leaves and are covered in red and pink flowers. The Firewheel Tree keeps its leaves but sprinkled among them are large bright red wheel-shaped flowers. The native frangipani covers itself with very fragrant yellow flowers.

Three species of palm grow in these forests, the Bangalow Palm, the Walking Stick, and the Rattan. Dominating the wettest soils are the tall Bangalow Palms used by the First Nation Bundjalung people to create their ‘Picci,’ a bucket or basket that were constructed from the base of a fallen frond. Consequently, they are also known as Piccabeen Palms and are widely grown in gardens. The stem of the miniature Walking Stick Palm was used to make walking sticks for the disabled veterans of the First World War. Its numerous tasty red fruit kept 2 survivors of the 1937 Stinson aircraft crash alive for 2weeks in the depth of the Lamington Plateau rainforests until they were rescued by renowned bushman Bernard O’Reilly. The Rattan is a climbing palm also known as Wait-a-while and if you get tangled in its hooked tendrils that are used as grappling hooks to climb high into the trees, you will understand its name as you try to unhook yourself from its clutches. Its cane-like stem is used for weaving baskets and cane furniture.

 One of the most distinctive features of the subtropical rainforest are the massive vines or lianas. The spicy seeds of the giant peppervine supply us with the pepper that we season our food with. It drops enormous festoons of foliage down around the host tree. In summer, these green curtains are enlivened by large numbers of small red berries that attract colourful fruit-eating birds. The seeds within the fruit are peppery so that birds and animals will not crush them, and they pass through the gut and are deposited on the ground and using the nutrients with the associated faeces, grow into new vines.

Richmond birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia). Photo by Wendy Bithell

Native Wisteria with masses of blue flowers and the Bower of Beauty Vine, with its red-throated, pink trumpet-like flowers, both now regularly grown in gardens, grow naturally in this forest. The Richmond Bird-wing Butterfly vine is eaten by the caterpillar of our largest, and most beautiful butterfly. The most abundant and easily observed vine is the climbing aroid Pothos that covers the trunks of many of the trees with curtains of green foliage and has delicious bright red fruit. 


Many of the higher tree branches and the tree trunks are home to epiphytic ferns. These are not parasites; they use the trees as a place to grow where they can obtain some sunlight. The Staghorns and Elkhorns were so named because the shape of the fern fronds resemble the antlers of deer. The Bird’s Nest Fern or Crow’s Nest has elongated fronds that encircle the plant.Basket Fern has fronds that curve up and resemble leafy baskets. All of these catch falling leaves and fruit that slide into the centre and decompose to form compost and soil that feeds the plant.


Hanging from these epiphytic ferns are one of the most ancient of all plants, the Ribbon Fern. Weeping Spleen wort or Mare’s Tail Fern,and Hare’s Foot Fern, which is named after the thick, fleshy rhizome or stem covered in hair-like scales, also take advantage of the hanging gardens rich in nutrients. Climbing over rocks and trees are Fragrant Fern, Strap Fern,Clumping Finger Fern, Robber Fern, and Felt Fern. The Filmy Ferns are tiny, and their fronds are only one cell thick.


On the ground in sunny clay soils grows one of the most ancient of all living plants, the Coral Fern, or Club Moss, which somewhat resemble tiny pines trees. Bracken fern and Ground Fern dominate open sun and filtered sunlit soils. In shadier sites the ground is usually covered in Maidenhair Ferns, Shield Ferns, Water Ferns, Rasp Ferns, and in very moist sites grows Bat’s-wing Fern.


Rainforest orchids grow on the trees and in the ground. The largest of the tree orchids is the King Orchid, which grows as an epiphyte on the higher tree trunks and branches, has thick green stems that sprout tufts of large leaves and spectacular sprays of fragrant cream flowers. Also growing onthe trees are Box Orchids, Raspy Root Orchids, Spice Orchids, Orange Blossom Orchids, named for its lovely fragrance, Pencil Orchids, Tongue Orchids and Dagger Orchids, these named for the shape of their leaves. Fairy bells and Tree Spider-flower Orchids are named after the shape of the flowers. The Tangle Orchid is a true air plant taking its nutrients from the air.

 Growing on the ground in sunnier locations are Pink Fingers and Flying Ducks, Bearded Orchids, Double-tails, Greenhoods and Ladies Tresses, all named after the shape of their flowers. The Giant Climbing Orchid is the tallest growing orchid in the world, reaching a height of up to 15 metres.Covers itself with a multitude of yellow flowers, it has no true leaves and like the Hyacinth Orchid, it is saprophytic, feeding on dead organic matter in the soil with a fungus. The largest ground orchid is the very beautiful Christmas Orchid that has large leaves and produces tall sprays of white flowers over the festive season.


Frequent rain sustains the forest and the many creeks, where their waters flow around basalt boulders, covered in colourful lichens, and at night, the reflections of glow-worms and stars decorate the quiet pools,disturbed only by platypus. Living in the larger pools are the Long-necked Freshwater Turtle and the Saw-shelled Freshwater Turtle. The latter is one of the few predators of the introduced cane toad and is unaffected by its deadly poison. Another inhabitant of the creek is the Long-finned Eel that grows to over a metre in length. After spending 30 years or more in freshwater pools it moves downstream to the ocean where in the depths of the Coral Sea it mates,lays eggs and dies. The baby eels or elvers swim all the way back to live their adult lives in freshwater rivers and creeks.


Lamington crayfish (Euastacus sulcatus), seen on the Minyon Falls track . Photo by Wendy Bithell

Small Rainbow Fish, Freshwater Shrimps and Crayfish also dwell in the creek along with Whirligig Beetles that spin around on the surface and Water-striders that hunt tiny insects on the surface of the water. Giant Water Bugs and water beetles hunt for prey under the water and two species of fishing spider, one of them with a leg span of 12 cm, hunt for insects and shrimps on the water’s edge.

Back to Blogs