Cape York Plants

There are lots of different Cape York plants.

Some are found in the rest of north Queensland and the rest of Australia, others are only found on the peninsula, or shared with Papua New Guinea - just like some of our animals.

Of course, there are so many plants in Cape York that there is no way I was going to even try to list them all on this page.

And I doubt you would be interested.

But I will give you an idea of some more obvious ones, and also the different vegetation types found on the peninsula.

Plants of the Rainforests

There are two different types of rainforest in far north Queensland - the so called Wet Tropics rainforest, and the real Cape York rainforest.

rainforest vines
Vines in Daintree Rainforest.

Wet Tropics Rainforest

The Wet Tropics rainforest lies in the south, in the coastal areas between Cooktown in the north and roughly Cardwell in the south.

It is quite a large area, much more accessible than the Cape York rainforest, and therefore also a lot more known and visited.

It does get more rain than the real Cape York rainforest, and the vegetation is therefore somewhat lusher than in the rainforests of the real peninsula.

Most plants are of Gondwana origin, and there are less species of Papua New Guinea than in the real Cape York rainforests.

Epiphytes in Iron Range.

Cape York Rainforest

The real Cape York rainforest on the other hand is on the real peninsula (Cooktown and north).

There used to be a lot more of it, before Australia got as dry as it is today, but now the real Cape York rainforest is only found in a few remaining pockets.

The largest ones are McIllwraith Range and Iron Range National Park and Lockerbie Scrub, and there is also some in Jardine River National Park.

Most plants are still of Gondwanan origin, but a larger amount are from Papua New Guinea, from the time when it was connected to the tip of Cape York peninsula by land bridges.

strangler fig
A strangler fig in the rainforests near Kuranda.

There are a lot of amazing plants in the rainforest, and the species numbers are higher than in any other ecosystem.

Some of the best ones you can watch out for are some impressive vines, epiphytes (plants that live on trees - including ant plants), and fig trees, particularly strangler fig, which starts growing on large rainforest trees and finally strangles the host.

And one you should watch out for is the infamous stinging tree.

Plants in Open Woodlands

Dry open woodlands cover the majority of the peninsula, and one of the most common trees here (once you are on the actual peninsula - roughly Cooktown and north), is Darwin Stringybark Eucalyptus tetrodonta.

dry open woodland
Dry open woodland along Batavia Road

There are also many other eucalypts, wattles, grevilleas, forest palms,

zamia palms
Gebang Palm, Corypha utan - in Lakefield National Park.

ferns, cycads,

cycad plants
Cycad - one of the oldest plants.

kapok trees,

kapok tree
Kapok trees along Starcke Wakooka Track.

... and black boys, aka grass trees - in clusters.

black boys
Black boys in Jardine River National Park.

Plants Near Water

And to make it simple, the thrid group I called plants near water. Some very common plants on the beaches are beach pandanus, casuarinas (sheoak), and of course palm trees - the native black palm, and the introduced coconut palm.

pandanus palms
Pandanus palms in Weipa.

The most typical plants around river mouths are mangroves, and Cape York is famous for its 30 species. That's how high that number gets in Australia, down south there are only two species.

mangrove plant
Mangrove near Punsand Bay.

While mangroves live in salt water, in freshwater swamps you find paperbark trees, also called melaleucas.

melaleuca swamp
Melaleuca swamp in Ninian Bay.

And in some freshwater lagoons you find a lot of water lilies.

water lilies
Water lilies near Cooktown.

Carnivorous Plants

Cape York is also famous for its carnivorous plants.

carnivorous pitcher plants

Pitcher plants along the Old Telegraph Track.

There are rainbow plants, bladderworts, sundews and a few different species of tropical pitcher plants.

Ant Plant

There are many strange plants in Cape York and ant plant is one of them.

It is a type of epiphyte that grows on certain species of trees.

Like on the photo below, the lower end of the stem of these plants is thick, and it contains a network of chambers where ants like to live. (It is only cetrain species of ants that do this).

Some of the chambers have smooth walls, where ants like to live. Others have rough walls, where ants deposit their waste.

The plant takes the advantage of the nutrients in the waste, while the ants get a place to live without having to build and maintain a nest. 

ant plant

Ant plant.

But it is more than that - there is a species of butterfly involved too.

The Apollo Jewel Butterfly lays its eggs near the plant of the species of ants.

When the eggs hatch, the ants bring the caterpillars into the nest
, knowing they extract a sweet substance that the ants like to eat.

The caterpillars, in return, get protection in the nest, and they also get to eat off the walls of the chambers and the leaves of the plant..

It is an interesting three-way symbiotic relationship between the ants, the plants and the butterflies.

You can see these plants in many places in Cape York, including Iron Range National Park and Lockerbie Scrub in the tip of Cape York.

Grass Tree aka Blackboy

Blackboy, aka grass tree, is a common plant in Cape York.

It is one of them plants, along with pandanus palm and kapok tree that you will see often on your Cape York trip.

While kapok tree and pandanus palm are found in the tropical northern Australia, blackboys are also found in the southern parts of the country - they are just different species.

There are 28 different species of grass tree in Australia, some known by common names such as balga (in the south western WA) and yakka (in South Australia).

Black boys in Oyala Thumotang National Park.

But the ones that are common in Cape York - the 
Northern Forest Grass Tree - are also common elsewhere in Queensland, and in New South Wales.

They are quite a common sight on the peninsula, and they tend to grow in clusters where they all seem to be of the same age.

They are known for their slow growth and often old age - they can be hundreds of years old.

Their flower stalks on the other hand can grow really quickly. They attract many native insects, and they were used as fishing spears by Aboriginal people. Their flowering can be stimulated by bush fires.

Tropical Pitcher Plants

Tropical pitcher plants are some of Cape York's most famous plants.

They are famous because they are some of the very few carnivorous plants that are found in Australia.

There are three species of them, and basically they are plants that eat meat.

On your travels in Cape York, if you know where to look, you can see them.

The pitchers are where the plant catches insects
. Some of them are reddish, others are green.

They have parts such as nectar glands whose purpose is to attract insects.

pitcher plants
Pitcher plants in the NPA.

Once an insect falls inside, there is a liquid that kills and digests the insect. The purpose of lids is thought to be protection from rain and possibly sometimes helping to keep the insect inside. 

tropical pitcher plants
Pitcher plants in the NPA.

They are easy to recognise thanks to their pitchers that are also quite easy to see.  

tropical pitcher plant
Pitcher plants in the NPA.

Tropical pitcher plants live along freshwater creeks and one of the best places to see them is the creek crossings along the Old Telegraph Track.

The furthest south I have seen them is along Dulhunty River, have a look on both river banks next to the crossing and you will see them.

But they are also found on the banks of other creeks and rivers.

Stinging Tree

While in the rainforest, watch out for stinging tree!

It is true. Jellyfish are not our only stingers. They are not even restricted to animals.

Australia has got its own very painful stinging plant, and while there are a few different species of it, the most painful one lives (where else!) in the tropical rainforests of north Queensland.

Where Do They Grow?

Some of them are tall trees, others are low shrubs, all live on the eastern coast of Australia, from Cape York to Victoria.

The smaller ones - the less-than-a-metre-tall shrubs
called Gympie Gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) - are the most painful.

And these live in the tropical rainforests of north Queensland, typical places being Daintree rainforests and Atherton Tablelands.

They are the types of plants that colonise rainforest ground after disturbance.

An old tree may have fallen, a tropical cyclone may have ripped up the canopy. Or park rangers have built a walking track.

That is exactly where they grow, because they live on the ground, they are not climbers, but they obviously need the sunlight.

And that is why it is so easy for us to walk into them.

What Do They Look Like?

They can apparently grow up to two metres tall although I have always happened to see them as small plants on the ground.

The most distinctive are their
10-20cm heart shaped leaves with toothed margins. They also have small flowers in the leave forks, that turn into clusters of red fruits.

And of course, the stinging hair that cover the leaves, stems and even fruits.

stinging tree stinging trees
Stinging tree on a rainforest walking track.

Sting and Toxicity

If you touch it, those tiny silicon hairs break off the plant and penetrate your skin like tiny glass fibres.  

The area on the surface of the skin becomes red and swollen.

The hairs are loaded with neurotoxin, which is released to your body.

It's the toxin that causes the pain, which peaks about half an hour after touching the plant, but can last for days, weeks,
even months..

And there is one recorded human death. 

stinging tree
Stinging tree in botanical gardens.


There is no effective antidote known for this stinging plant.

The only thing you can do is to get the hairs out of your skin. And that is not an easy task considering they are so small that your skin may even close over them.

The latest best method was found by a James Cook University student in Cairns, and has since become official - pull them out using a
wax hair removal strip.

Kapok Tree

Kapok tree is a common tree in Cape York.

It has beautiful yellow flowers, green fruits when not ripened, and later distinctive cotton bolls.

You can often see it in dry open schrub, particularly in rocky areas, and in places it is so common it is impossible to go unnoticed.

So in case you ever wondered, this is kapok tree, sometimes also called cotton plant or cotton tree, Cochlospermum gillivraei.

It is a very drought tolerant plant, that drops it leaves to save water.

kapok tree

It is a beautiful tree, about 10 metres tall, with grey, smooth bark and bright yellow flowers.

kapok tree cotton plant

After the flowering, the fruits are first green.
kapok tree fruits

The ripened fruit opens up and turns into a cotton boll that is distinctive and easy to see in its surroundings.

kapok tree cotton

Brown seeds are inside the fibre.
   cotton boll

It grows on and south of Cape York peninsula, as well as the Top End of Northern Territory. You can particularly often see in in the Lakefield area and central eastern Cape York.

Below are some more kapok tree facts:

* There are some 20 species of
Cochlospermum trees in the world, Australia has four species including Cochlospermum gillivraei.

* Gillivraei refers to John McGillivray - the naturalist on the explorer ship HMS Rattlesnake, which explored the northern Cape York area in around 1850.

* All the four species of Australia grow in the tropical north of the country.

* One of them,
Cochlospermum fraseri, grows in Kakadu National Park.

* In Queensland, our native kapok tree is known to be found as far south as Bowen.

* They lose their leaves during the Dry Season, just before flowering.

* They flower just before the hottest build-up season in about August to October.

* The kapok tree grows 100m above sea level, usually in dry rocky country but it does tolerate water as it survives our long wet seasons.

* Kapok tree roots are bush tucker - traditionally dug up during the wet season and roasted.

* The flowers are edible raw and apparently a good source of vitamin C.

* The roots are also traditionally used as bush medicine.

* Kapok is the fluffy material in the seed pods, and it has been used to stuff pillows and even life preservers during the WWII.

* The silky kapok material is very flammable.

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