Science

Gold Coast community, council helping critically-endangered Ormeau Bottle Tree come back from extinction

As many native plant and animal species struggle for survival in the fast-developing region of south-east Queensland, the critically-endangered Ormeau Bottle Tree is quietly taking root and fighting back from the brink of extinction.

A survey in 2009 found the species was existing with just 161 mature trees growing within a one square kilometer range of dry rainforest at Ormeau, on the northern Gold Coast.

A decade later, field botanist Paul Donatiu found the population had increased to 220 mature trees.

“Some of those locations are on extractive industry land but it’s also found in a nature refuge.”

While finding an extra 59 mature trees was heartening, Mr Donatiu said it was the discovery of many immature trees which showed the species was bouncing back.

“In the process of doing that [2019 survey] we found over 500 juvenile individuals that weren’t within the dry rainforest community that the mature trees were found in,” he said.

Juvenile Ormeau Bottle Trees are identified by their splayed finger-like leaves. (Supplied: Paul Donatiu)

“They were actually in the [dryer] vegetation areas beside those areas.

“We know those areas are subject to fire.”

Mr Donatiu said juvenile trees were at most risk of being destroyed by fire until they reached a height of five metres.

“It won’t survive anything but a cool burn and that’s a trickle fire through the understorey.”

Four men and one woman standing on a mountain-top plateau.
Botanical illustrator Janet Hauser (left) and amateur botanist Glenn Leiper (middle) were bushwalking when Ms Hauser discovered the Ormeau Bottle Tree.(Supplied: Glenn Leiper )

Stumbling upon a significant discovery

Amateur botanist Glenn Leiper said he was bushwalking with botanical illustrator Janet Hauser in the 1980s when she discovered the Ormeau Bottle Tree (Brachychiton sp. Ormeau).

“Janet lived at Ormeau at that stage and said let’s meet under that big mango tree,” he said.

“Janet was walking ahead of me and she found this juvenile plant and all of the bottle trees have got a very distinctive leaf … it looks like a splayed hand with fingers sticking out.

Mr Leiper said Ms Hauser then realized the tree they’d met at prior to the bushwalk wasn’t actually a mango tree.

“She had a thought and said, ‘Glenn that mango tree that we were standing underneath down by the road is a Brachychiton, a bottle tree,’ he said.

Community’s plan for a greener future

While the species has increased naturally, the Gold Coast City Council has also joined the fight to protect the Ormeau Bottle Tree which can grow to 25 meters in height.

Councilor Mark Hammel said 27 young trees were recently planted across the northern Gold Coast.

“It’s a pretty awesome conservation program where you’ve got local volunteer groups, the local Land Care group, going out and collecting seeds from those existing trees,” he said.

“You can over-love something so they’re in a pretty protected area, but it’s an area that if too many people go … it could lead to vegetation damage.

“We just want to protect them until we get their numbers up over the next decade.”

Line of young trees planted in a park.
Gold Coast Council officers will keep a close eye on recently-planted Ormeau Bottle Trees to ensure they’re not damaged and remain healthy.(Supplied: Cr Mark Hammel)

Cr Hammel said council officers involved in the project were excited to be working on protecting the endangered tree.

“They’re definitely trees that will get a lot of love and attention,” he said.

The Gold Coast City Council will also trial growing the Ormeau Bottle Tree in other locations to expand the species.

Trunk of Ormeau Bottle Tree
Not all Ormeau Bottle Trees have a bulbous trunk, which is often a defining feature of the species.(Supplied: Glenn Leiper )

Raising awareness of tree’s importance

The profile of the tree is constantly growing via Facebook group Friends of Ormeau Bottle Tree which is regularly posting to raise awareness of the unique species.

David Cuschieri is one of the page members and has planted Ormeau Bottle Trees in the Gold Coast Botanic Gardens and at The Gold Coast Historical Museum.

“Ignorance is not really bliss so without the awareness they would definitely be cut down on rural properties.

Four people standing behind a newly planted tree.
David Cuschieri (second from right) planted an Ormeau Bottle Tree in the Gold Coast Botanic Gardens in December 2019. (Supplied: David Cuschieri)

“[The species] really did need people to know more about it.”

Field botanist Mr Donatiu said it was always a challenge attracting attention to plant species.

“Plants, in our mind, are equally as important and there’s a huge diversity of plants just within south-east Queensland.

“It’s incredible how many of those species are listed as either vulnerable or endangered.”

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