Forests of Cooloola

Excerpt from Discovering Cooloola – a complete guide & map 
by John Sinclair  1978

Forests of Cooloola

Queensland is well endowed, not only in having the world's largest sandmasses, but in having these with such unique and unexpected features as perched dune lakes and towering rainforests existing on sand.  It is because Cooloola has such a wealth of forests that people often overlook the fact that these are growing in impoverished sand.  This is in itself quite remarkable.

The forests of Cooloola are a product of three major factors which successfully combine to sustain these crowning features.  First it is in a high rainfall area – of 1500mm (60 inches) of rain annually.  Secondly, over a period to thousands of years the forests have subtly accumulated and concentrated the nutrients which occur mainly in the forest canopy and in the top few centimetres of soil.  And thirdly, the forests have evolved a sense of interdependence, each species simultaneously developing its own niche and providing one for other species.

The limited nutrients to support this enormous biomass come from two sources.  Although the sand may seem chemically inert there are minute amounts of nutrients in some of the grains, such as feldspars, which provide the sand with its traditional golden colour.  This nutrient supports some plants and over the ages it has been recycled through countless generations of plants and concentrated in the top thirty centimetres of soil.  In addition, the prevailing winds, having gathered up minute quantities of nutrients in their long blast across the Pacific, begin to shed their load of phosphates, potash and other essential elements in 'atmospheric fallout'.  This falls most heavily on the first land it comes in contact with, and is an essential ingredient in maintaining the nutrient cycle.  The western side of the Cooloola sandmass and the weathered sandstone areas of the western catchment do not gain as much benefit as the areas closest to the sea and as a rule cannot maintain the height and density of vegetation of the eastern parts of the sandmass.”

“............Although there are no details of early logging prior to 1935, it is known that most tof the native Kauri and Hoop Pines and White Beech were removed from the vine forests in early loggings.  Hardwood trees were also selectively logged.  There has been virtually no logging of scrubwood species since 1935.  However, although there has been some regeneration of Kauri Pine from the earlier select logging, there has been little regeneration of White Beech. 

The creation of special niches by some species for others begins at the frontier on the foredune where there is a continuing struggle for survival by the forests against the salt laden winds.  The salt, which is lethal to many species, does not affect the Beech or Horsetail Oaks Casuarina equisetifolia, which are the vanguard of the army of trees growing almost to the high water mark.  Inside, close to the tidal zones of the estuaries and lakes grow their cousins, Swamp Oaks Casuarina glauca.

The Casuarinas are a distinctive group of trees with their long needle-like leaves.  Whereas Beach Oak grows to 6 metres with pendulous bluish green foliage, like horse-tails, the Black She-oak Casuarina littoralis grows to the same height but with more erect habit and finer foliage.  Casuarinas have male and female flowers separately, usually on different plants.  The rusty red tinge of the Black She-oak, seen from March to October, is due to the spikes of male flowers on the outer foliage.  The female flowers, like little red pieces of fluff, which swell into characteristic knobby nuts after pollination, are inconspicuously placed on the branches.  In the tall forests of Cooloola a fourth 'Oak' grows, Forest Oak Casuarina torulosa.  This is similar to Black She-oak, but larger.

Also in the vanguard of trees on the beach front are the Pandanus or Screw Pines, so called because of the way the leaves grow in a spiral on the trunks.  Two different species are noted on the Cooloola foredunes.  The fruit of the pandanus has a pineapple appearance but little nutritive value although it can be eaten but to avoid scouring and other side effects, it should be first boiled, if you are adventurous.

Also up to the front is the Coast Banksia B intergrifolia, which is characterised by the whitish underside of the leaf and dark green top-side, with little serration around the leaf edges.  In the forest this tree grows very tall and erect whereas on the coast, pruned by the elements, it develops as a sprawling prostrate leafy tree wedge-shaped against the wind.

All five of the Banksias of south-east Queensland grow on the Cooloola sandmass.  Wallum Banksia aemula and its close relative Banksia serrata, also sometimes known as Red Honeysuckle, both grow in the poorer soils, more conspicuously on the western side of the sandmass where the older soils are more impoverished.  Although they have saw-toothed leaf edges and conical older cones, they can be differentiated because B. aemula has conical tips on the stamens of its flowers, and smaller fruits.

Broad leafed Banksia Banksia robur is characteristic of the swamps and wetter heaths.  It is a low squat plant with beautiful emerald green flowers.  Dwarf Banksia Banksia oblongifolia gooks like a small prostrate version of coastal banksia.  It is also found on the heaths and in the grasslands, rarely growing as much as a metre high.  The most beautiful banksia Golden Candlesticks Banksia collina grows only in the western catchment on the degraded sandstone.  It is a low spreading shrub which produces beautiful blooms between Autumn and Spring from which its name is derived.

Behind the foredune, and in its protection, grows the Coast Cypress - Coolooli to the aborigines - Callitris columullaris, and in damper, protected areas the Paperbark Melaleuca quinquenerva.  There are a variety of Melaleeucas in Cooloola including Small-leaved Paperbark Meleleuca linarifolia, Prickly Paperbark Melaleuca nodosa and Wallum Paperbark Meleleuca sieberi which grows in swamps in the western catchment, but the common Paperbark is the most widespread.  Its creamy white bark etches the swamps, the Noosa River and its tributaries, the Noosa Plain and all the estuaries and lakes, and in so doing it adds character and dimension to the colour and texture of the landscape.

Behind the Cypress and Paperbarks grow the Eucalypts.  The one with the greatest tolerance to salt and wind is the startling Moreton Bay Ash Euc. tessellaris which, neat the coast, develops gnarled and tortuous curves as scars of its battles against the winds.  The base of the tree carries bark with a typical grey stocking of mosaics, whilst the smooth top varies in colour with the season, from pale lemon to light grey to olive green.

The next Eucalypt to venture so close to the coast is the Red Bloodwood Euc. intermedia which has a scaly irregular patterned bark uniformly coloured throughout the year.  It puts on a special show of blossom during December-January which makes the air heavy with honey fragrance.  The forests echo by day with screeching lorikeets seeking the nectar of the Bloodwoods and with the squabbling of fruit bats (flying foxes) by night.  A tall tree, growing to 20 metres, can often make a spectacular camera study.

Close behind the Bloodwoods and merging with them only a kilometre from the coast are the first of the appropriately named Scribbly Gums Euc. signata whose scribbles are made by little insects tunnelling into the bark.  The colour, shape and character of the Scribbly Gums have inspired many writers and poets.  Noosa writer, Nancy Cato, has a delightful children's story based on them.

With these Eucalypts is a tree often mistaken for one because of its smooth flesh to orange coloured bark, Rusty Gum, or Smooth Barked Apple Angophora costata.  This tree, with its seductive curves, is one of the more spectacular components of the forest, especially in December when its bark glows to a bright orange as it flowers.  It is the flowers and the fruits which indicate that this tree is not a Eucalypt since the latter are distinguished by invariably having caps on their buds.  (Eucalyptus, literally translated from the Greek means 'well covered'.)  Angophoras belong to the Myrtle family, along with the Boxes, Turpentines, Melaleucas, Callistemons, Leptospermums and Eucalypts.

Other Eucalypts are the two giants, which grow on the tops of the ridges in well drained localities surrounding the rainforests.  Blackbutt Euc. pilularis is best characterised by its stringy barked base and its scribbly gum top, although its wood has a different character, which makes it the main species sought by loggers.  It grows to over 50 metres (150 feet) and is a distinctive tree.  Even closer to the rainforest is a more valuable tree highly prized by the early bullockies,  Tallow-wood Euc. microcorys which, because it was selectively logged in the early days, is now much rarer in Cooloola and not nearly as common as the Blackbutts.  One of the best places to observe Blackbutts in Cooloola in typical stands is near the very popular Lake Freshwater.

Interspersed amongst the forests are various attractive palm trees.  One of these is the Cabbage or Fan Palm Livistona sp.  In the rainforest and wet gullies the tall Piccabeen Palms Arohontophoenix cunninghamiana grow like gun barrels, straight and leafless often for 25 metres.  The Piccabeen has a most attractive flower.

Many people will also notice a small 'Palm' which is only two metres high and which is common through the forests of Cooloola.  However, it is not really a palm at all but is a cycad and belongs to a separate genus of older, more primitive plants, Macrozamia.  There is more than one species of Macrozamia in Cooloola.  Their dark glossy leaves and small size make them favourite ornamentals.  Despite their poisonous properties the aborigines found ways to prepare their fruit, which grows like an attractive large green pineapple at the base of the plant and open up to reveal the starling orange fruits.  Each Macrozamia fruits quite infrequently.

Other understory trees which grow under the Eucalypts need some definition.  The Banksias and Casuarinas have already been described.  A common undergrowth tree which grows to 4 metres with a mass of branches and light green flower-like leaves is Monotoca scoparia.  Blue Berry Ash Elaeocarpus reticulatus has interesting and attractive bell-shaped flowers in summer and produces a mass of bead-sized blue berries which adorn the tree for most of Autumn and Winter.

Of the Wattles in the understory two are quite common and reasonably distinctive.  Acacia aulacocarpa is a tall, erect wattle with dark flaky bark growing to 4 metres in height with bluish coloured leaves.  Yellow Wattle Acacia flavescens has a large broad distinctive leaf which tends to have a reddish tinge when young and a yellowish hue as it matures.

One of the oddities normally associated with the Scribbly Gum forests is the Woody Pear Xylomelum pyriforms which grows to 4 metres in height and after producing pink flowers in September and October, produces a strange wood fruit like a pear hanging upside down.  However, the woody pear is not edible although it is reported that the small winged seeds inside are.

Another common smaller tree of the forests is Pink Walnut Alphitonia excelsa which has a dark upper surface to the leaves and a silvery underside, with splotchy grey bark.  Usually the leaves have been attacked by insects.

Although not a tree the Dodder Vine Cassytha paniculata is a part of Cooloola.  This parasitic, leafless, reddish yellow 'air vine' twines over the understory of shrubs, often making them an even more entangles impenetrable mass.

A few vines of the forest, especially the rainforest, deserve attention.  Indian Lawyer Cane Flagellaria indica was a favourite harvest for headmasters of old, just as the Walkingstick 'Palm' Cordyline rubra, which is common in Cooloola rainforests as an understory plant, was also gathered for canes, walking sticks and whip handles.  A Climbing Pandanus Freycinetia gaudichaudii is found in wetter gullies along with a variety of Tree Ferns.  There are a number of epiphytes to be found in the trees, especially in the rainforests - Orchids particularly the Brush Box Orchids Dendrobium aemulum and Staghorns Platycerium grande, Elkhorns P. bifurcatum and Crows Nests Asplaium nidus.

The Rainforests

Of the 38 000 hectares of the sandmass 2550 hectoars are covered by rainforests with some trees growing in height to 50 metres.  The rainforests extend mainly down the centre backbone of Cooloola starting west of Double Island Point and extending to the Cooloola Sand patch.  Less than one third (only 800 hectares) of this rainforest is included in the Cooloola National Park.

Species list:

  • Kauri Pine Agathis robusta - indicator species.
  • Carrol Backhousia myrtifolia - smaller understory tree.
  • Brush Box Tristania conferta - characterised by a regular light brown lightly scaled bark whose branches are tipped with smooth salmon pink bark.  
  • Satinay Syncarpia gillii - may be mistaken for Ironbark because its rough bark is so heavily grooved.  However, it does produce a distinctive fruit, with seven seed capsules - six radiating outwards from the central one which is at right angles to it.       
  • Hoop Pone Araucaria cunninghamii - grows only in Ramsay's Scrub.
  • Bumpy Ash Flindersia schottiana - another commercial tree.
  • Crab Apple Schizomeria ovata - the most common trees of the rainforest. 
  • Ribbonwood Euroschinus falcata -     ditto
  • Bolly Gum Litsea leefeana -     ditto
  • Strangler Figs Ficus watkinsoniana - are amongst the most conspicuous and fascinating trees.
  • Flooded Gums Euc. grandis - only found in rainforest patches on the way to Harry's Hut.
  • Cabbage Gums Euc. bancroftii - attractive trees on lower sandstone areas.
  • Stringybarks Euc. acmeniodes and Euc phaeotricha - grow on the higher slopes of the western catchment.
  • Swamp Box Tristania suaveolens - another tree found commonly in swampy areas throughout Cooloola.      
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