Glenn Cooke

Queensland has a selection of unique native trees which have particular claims to distinctiveness as they have all coloured and shaped the character of Queensland's life and imagery. During the nineteenth century the native forests provided an untapped resource for building and cabinet timber but, with one exception, the trees documented here proved unsuitable. This list includes the Bottle Tree, Bunya Pine, Foxtail Palm, Moreton Bay Fig, Queensland Nut, Silky Oak, Umbrella Tree and one exotic, the Bowen Mango. This selection is quite extraordinary when compared to the number of distinctive trees to be found in other Australian states.

The Bottle Tree

One of the most distinctive of Queensland trees is the bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris). It is notable for its trunk, shaped rather like a skittle, with green bark (which turns grey in older specimens) and has a rounded leaf canopy. There are more than 30 species in the genus in Australia  which include  the Illawarra flame tree (B. acerifolius) and kurrajong (B. populneus). 

‘Rupestris’ suggests that it may be found ‘growing among rocks’ but it is widely distributed in dry, open woodland in south-eastern and the central-western Queensland. It was described by Sir Thomas Mitchell during his exploration in 1848 in his Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia published in the same year. It was described by British botanist John Lindley that year as well. The tree can grow to 25 metres but much less in cultivation.

It quickly became incorporated into the visual cultural of Queensland when the prominent Colonial artist, Conrad Martens (1801-78), travelled to the Darling Downs in 1851-52 to seek commissions from his connections amongst the squattocracy. The sketch in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery was executed on Martens’ journey over Cunningham’s Gap. A sketch of a group of bottle trees is in the collection of the Manly Art Gallery, Sydney. 

The tree has other values. According to the ‘Information about Australia’s Flora: Growing Native Plants’, Australian National Herbarium:

The name of the bottle tree can be taken literally, as there is a significant amount of water stored between the inner bark and the trunk. Aboriginals historically carved holes into the soft bark to create reservoir-like structures. The seeds, roots, stems, and bark have all traditionally been a source of food for people and animals alike. Another use has been made of the fibrous inner bark to make twine or rope and even woven together to make fishing nets.

And importantly for the cattle industry the tree may be pulled as the fibrous trunk can provide fodder in times of drought.  

Although Tambo in central-western Queensland depicts the bottle tree in souvenir wares and neighbouring Blackall has the bottle tree planted in its main street, Roma, on the western edge Darling Downs (and near where Mitchell made his exploration) has the strongest connection. The Roma Town Council planted a memorial avenue of over 100 bottle trees to commemorate each of the local fallen from World War I about 1920 and in 1927 transplanted a specimen with a girth of 8.9 metres from a local property in 1927 to Edwardes Street (off McDowell Street). The ‘Avenue of Heroes’ is one of the most significant memorial avenues in Australia and is currently listed on the Queensland heritage register.  

This connection is made explicit in the Roma tea towel which includes the bottle tree as one of the icons of the town.

Bunya Pine

In England during the early nineteenth century the Gardenesque Style arose as a rival to the Picturesque (woodland) Style which had reigned during the previous century.  Promoted by John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) the style emphasised the use of exotic plants, which were placed in specific settings in the landscape so that the individual colour and form of the tree could best be appreciated.  During this great period of England’s colonial expansion an enormous range of exotic plants were brought to the British Isles from all parts of the world.  The Monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), an evergreen native to the Andes Mountains, South America became the most fashionable exotic tree and was widely planted throughout the British Isles.

The Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwilli) is its close relative. Its scientific name honours the botanist John Carne Bidwill, who sent the first specimens to Sir William Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in 1843. Ludwig Leichhardt wrote during his expedition from the Darling Downs to Port Essington in 1844 ‘The Bunya-Bunya tree is noble and gigantic, and its umbrella-like head overtowers all the trees of the Brush’.

These visually striking trees became widely planted in Queensland and in the gardens of colonial Australia so that by 1855 specimens were included in the planting schemes devised by Edward La Trobe Bateman (1816-97) at the University of Melbourne. Shortly thereafter young trees could be purchased through nursery catalogues. Subsequently the Bunya was widely planted in parks and other public areas including schools. This is a surprising choice but the risk of the massive seed-comes (weighing up to 5 kgs) falling and injuring children is considerably reduced as children have the sense not play under a tree which sheds such sharp, prickly needles.

The Bunya pine is of great significance to Queensland’s Aboriginal population as, when the fruit was ripe, the various tribes of the region would set aside differences and gather in the Bunya Mountains to feast on the kernels. A Bunya festival was recorded by pioneer Tom Petrie (1831-1910), who at the age of 14 years attended a gathering with Aboriginal people at the Bunya Range (now the Blackall Range) in the hinterland area of the Sunshine Coast.  His daughter, Constance Petrie, put down his stories in which he said that the trees fruited at three-year intervals. The three-year interval may not be correct. Bunyas pollinate in South East Queensland in September, October and the cones fall seventeen to eighteen months later in late January to early March from the coast to the current Bunya Mountains. When there is heavy rainfall or drought, pollination may vary. The large festival harvests may vary between two and seven years.  The seeds were prepared by toasting or boiling. Apart from the development of cultural tourism attempts are now being made to commercialise the product.

The Bunya was considered significant enough for the Queensland Studies Centre of Griffith University to have a seminar devoted to it and the papers published as a special edition of Queensland Review in 2002.

The Umbrella Tree

Schefflera actinophylla (formerly Brassaia actinophyll) is native to the Queensland coast north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

The genus Schefflera which has about 650 species, was named in 1776 by J.R. and G. Foster in honour of J.C. Scheffler of Danzig (Poland); ‘actinophylla’ refers to the leaflets radiating from a central point.

The tree’s distinctive, sculptural foliage and crowning arcs of dark red flowers in summer have made it a popular plant in sub-tropical area but it will also tolerate a wide temperature range and poorer soils. As the flowering heads are attractive to nectar feeding and seed eating birds it has become a something of a problem in Southern Queensland as it has in the humid environment of Florida.  Botanist Alex D Hawkes remarked in 1967:

This araliad seeds very freely, and their seedlings are widely offered elsewhere in the Unites States as house plants, and when larger, are extensively utilised as pot-specimens in hotels and other buildings.

It is this factor which provides a claim to fame outside Queensland: during the 1950s and 1960s it was among the most popular house-plants in the world. This was a time when the rubber plant (Ficus elastic), various twining philodendrons and more decorative leaved plants such as the dieffenbachia came to prominence in interior decoration as they could cope with trying conditions in heated interiors.

The umbrella tree’s striking foliage was effective against the plain brick walls and architectural spaces in the post-war building boom and was used in a publicity photograph from Chicago in the early 1950s where the umbrella tree was promoted as ‘Plant of the month’. 

It was still being recommended as a hardy specimen for difficult shady spot and indoors in the 1980s, in popular magazines like the Australian Women’s Weekly, but has since lost its popularity in recent years to other exotic plants. It has since been declared an environmental weed. The Brisbane City Council states:

Umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla) is regarded as an environmental weed in south-eastern Queensland, New South Wales, and on Christmas Island. It is also very invasive in other parts of the world (i.e. in Florida, Hawaii and on several islands in the south Pacific).The roots of this species are somewhat invasive. They can block plumbing joints and pipes as well as damaging footpaths and building foundations.

The Bowen Mango

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Bowen Harbour Master and Customs Officer, G.E. Sandrock, obtained mango seeds from visiting Indian ships and grew them on his property ‘Woodlands’. As this initial stock came into fruit, seeds from the better quality and more prolific trees were collected by a neighbour who planted them on his property at Adelaide Point and these were further selected by farmer, Harry Lott who established a small orchard on his property, ‘Kensington’. The mango became widely distributed through the Bowen and Burdekin regions.

According to the Cairns Post in December 1892, an attempt made to export the Bowen Mango to London that year was a failure. It had better success to nearby markets in Rockhampton and Charters Towers before cold storage made it possible to ship the harvest  to Brisbane and later to Sydney.

Mango trees can grow very large but cropping trees are pruned and produce fruit when about four years old. Mangoes bloom in the winter but a prolific flowering does not necessarily mean an extensive crop as wind and temperature variation may prevent fruit setting.  Mangoes are harvested from September to March with the peak of the season being from November to January.

The Silky Oak

The silky oak (Grevillea robusta) is a tree native to south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales and is widely planted for its display of golden-yellow flowers in early summer. As it flowers concurrently with the exotic jacaranda spring is known in Queensland as the ‘season of the blue and the gold’.  R. Geddes Crawford, ‘Jacaranda Days: a Bit of old Brisbane’, wrote in The Queenslander, 25 October 1928:

. . . on the left towers an old silky-oak, with its glory of golden blossom, and there falls softly on the ear drop-drop-drop ― what is the sound? The blossoms are falling from its companion of many years, the old jacaranda tree.

Alan Cunningham was a botanist and explorer of Queensland (1816-39) and had been appointed a collector for the Royal Horticultural Society by Sir Joseph Banks. It is presumed that Cunningham obtained the initial specimens of the tree when he visited Mount Barney (now Mt Barney National Park) in the company of Captain Patrick Logan in August 1828. It was named Grevillea robusta after Charles Francis Greville (one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society, England) in 1829-30. 

Although the silky oak is widely cultivated in gardens throughout the world its primary significance in Queensland was as a cabinet timber. Initially, however, it was ignored and used to make casks and packing cases. Stands were frequently burnt to clear the land.

It achieved recognition at the Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Society’s Royal National Society’s annual exhibition in 1901 when manufacturer, John Hicks Limited and cabinet-maker, John Merten were awarded first orders of merit for bedroom suites. Competing department stores such as Finney, Isles & Co soon responded.

It was used to great effect for hand-crafted furniture such as the dresser carved by Nell Bott for the 1907 Women’s Work Exhibition in the Collection of the Queensland Art Gallery. For the next forty years silky-oak became the dominant timber used to furnish ‘Queenslander’ homes for the bedroom, lounge and dining rooms.

The poet Emily Coungeau celebrated its use in bedroom furniture in ‘The Silky Oak’ in a poem published in the Queenslander, 2 September 1925:

Serene you stand, and powerless to appeal
As the sharp axes, flashing in the sun.
Cleave with a singing rhythm until you reel: 
The work of execution has begun.
 . . . 
 In some boudoir, with its distinctive air.
 Your silken grainings may lend added charm,
 And softly mirror beauty’s profile fair…

The simplified construction of this furniture embellished with shallow carving reflects the later influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and is immediately indicative of a Queensland origin. The appeal of the golden grain of the timber has assured continued appeal as people now seek authentic period furniture for their restored ‘Queenslander’ homes. 

Foxtail Palm

The most recent contribution to this list of unique Queensland trees is the striking Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifucrcata) which was brought to botanical notice by an Aboriginal man known as Wodyeti as recently as 1978. It was formally described and named in his honour in 1983. The palm had a very restricted distribution along the stony ridges within the Cape Melville National Park on Cape York, but has now been successfully commercially propagated and distributed.

Moreton Bay Fig

Although the Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla) is native to coastal Australia from the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland to the Shoalhaven River south of Sydney its prevalence around the new penal settlement at Moreton Bay (later Brisbane) gave its common name.  Like all figs, it has an obligate mutualism with fig wasps; figs are only pollinated by fig wasps, and fig wasps can only reproduce in fig flowers.  It is one of the largest spreading figs in the world and has a vital role in the rainforest where it produces large quantities of fruit in season making it a major food source for rainforest birds and flying foxes.


The macadamia nut was described by botanist Allan Cunningham in 1828 and was identified at Mount Bauple near Maryborough. The Macadamia (variously Queensland or Bauple) nut was the first Australian endemic plant food to be exploited commercially. However, the industry was first established in Hawaii during the 1920s.

The macadamia (Queensland nut) is firmly embedded in the consciousness of Queenslanders from the south-east corner as many homes has a tree growing in the back yard. Cracking the hard-shelled nuts was a holiday event recalled by generations of children. Trees proliferated  until the 1950s when the advent of the Victa lawn-mower turned the nuts into dangerous projectiles.  

In Queensland plantations were established at the Glasshouse Mountains and Gympie. Production expanded northwards to around Bundaberg. In 2008 a new species, Macadamia janseni, was found growing near Miriam Vale north-west of Bundaberg thus extending the climatic range of commercial varieties.

References and Further reading (Note)

Glenn R. Cooke (ed), ‘It’s all about the Mary: A garden history of Marybrough’, Queensland Review, Cambridge University Press, June 2012, Vol. 19, no. 1.

References and Further reading (Note)

R. Geddes Crawford ‘Jacaranda Days: a Bit of old Brisbane’, The Queenslander, Brisbane, 25 October 1928

References and Further reading (Note)

The Queenslander, 23 August 1901, p.443, 1 August 1903, p.49, 2 September 1925