AUSTRALIA’s tropical rainforests are home to a huge variety of plants. The tiny orchid Taeniopyllum cylindrocentrum clings to trees, photosynthesises through its roots and is known to science from only one specimen that was collected in Cape York in the 1960s. Strangler figs in Far North Queensland form cathedral-like structures that are towering tourist attractions with their own sign posts and boardwalks. The rock violet, looking much like its relative, the popular house plant African violet, grows in the Queensland Wet Tropics but stretches down to just north of Rockhampton. Ristantia waterhousei is a tree in the myrtle family that you can only visit at the summit of Mt Dryander, near the coast to the north of Mackay.
If you’re a tourist with a bucket list of must-see species, a bushwalker curious about something growing in your local reserve, a land manager concerned about a possible weed, or an ecologist conducting a biodiversity survey, you can now easily identify almost all of Australia’s rainforest plants, big or small, rare or plentiful, thanks to the latest iteration of a project that has spanned nearly 50 years.
“We’ve just launched the seventh edition of Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants,” says Frank Zich, Curator of the Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns, which houses 180,000 specimens recording the biodiversity of Australian plants.
What began as a set of key cards for identifying rainforest plants back in 1971 became the world’s first computer-based plant identification system in 1993, went online in 2010 and is now an interactive online key covering 10 per cent of Australia’s plants.
Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants includes 2753 rainforest species that grow from Cape York west to Western Australia and south to Rockhampton, where many predominately northern rainforest species reach their southern limit.
“In this version we’ve added 200 species along with 3000 new images and updates to the scientific names and classification, which is known as taxonomy,” Frank says.
“With the help of the local Society for Growing Australian Plants branch in Mackay we’ve also added rainforest species that grow in central coastal Queensland, mainly around Mackay. This is an area with outstanding biodiversity values where tropical and subtropical influences overlap,” he says.
Remnant rainforests in central coastal Queensland are mainly found on the Clarke and Connors Ranges near Mackay. The ranges extend over a length of 300 km and width of about 50 km, and reach an altitude of 1267 m on Mt Dalrymple.
“Another highlight is that in northern Queensland the rainforests are part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage area so are highly significant for conservation, with high levels of species richness and endemism,” Frank says.
Although the key is used by scientists and land managers, school students and the public can also use it to identify rainforest plants.
“Our aim is for members of the public to be able to identify rainforest plants with ease,” Frank says. “The system pools botanical knowledge in one place, with minimum jargon, using a method that simplifies the whole plant ID process because you can use whatever features of the plant that you have observed and you need minimum botanical knowledge.”
The key to Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants includes almost 14,000 images and with 2753 species it covers around 10 percent of Australian species.
This edition was supported through funding from the Australian Government’s Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) Bush Blitz Program. The project was run at the Australian Tropical Herbarium, a joint venture between CSIRO, Australian and Queensland Governments and James Cook University. Staff continue to work on the release of this version as a Lucid App, which will enable use on mobile devices.