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Attention Grabbers

Nada Sankowsky

Every January the green of the rainforest is lit by the vivid crimson flowers of the appropriately named Wheel of Fire tree. Stenocarpus sinuatus occurs in upland to highland rainforests from north-east Queensland to the Nambucca River in New South Wales.

Stenocarpus sinuatus
Stenocarpus sinuatus
Photo: Brian Walters

In its rainforest home, this gorgeous tree may reach 30 metres, but in cultivation it rarely attains half this height. Stenocarpus sinuatus is a sturdy, slow-growing tree which develops a narrow vertical shape in an open situation. The dark, glossy leaves have wavy edges and deep lobes and are an excellent foil for the dramatic flowers.

The flowers provide an interesting study as they develop. At first they are green and, as they grow, they change to orange and finally to a burning red, assuming at the same time the unique wheel-shaped arrangement that gives the tree its common name. As each wheel matures, the flowers split open to reveal the golden stamens. The flower clusters often erupt out of the trunk as well as along the larger branches. It seems that the warmer the climate, the more heavily the trees will flower.

Wheel of Fire flowers from late summer to early autumn. The flowers are followed by bunches of narrow, brownish-green follicles which contain the papery seed. The seeds are packaged very economically inside the capsule; they are arranged vertically in overlapping rows. The fruit remain on the tree for a year, maturing and releasing the seeds as the tree begins its next flowering.

Stenocarpus sinuatus
Brachychiton acerifolius
Photo: Alfred Guhl

The closely related Stenocarpus cryptocarpus (never-seen seed) occurs in very wet rainforest from Big Tableland to Mt Bartle Frere. This lovely tree has flower clusters of an even more pronounced wheel-shape than S.sinuatus, but its flowers lack the vivid hue of the latter species; they are white. S.cryptocarpus has very large compound leaves in the juvenile stage. It is a canopy tree in the rainforest.

Flowering in the months prior to Wheel of Fire is another of Australia's spectacular trees. This is the similarly named Flame Tree.

The Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) begins flowering in early summer after the maple-shaped leaves fall in spring. Thus the flowering tree is completely covered in flame - an unforgettable sight.

Some people dislike the Flame Tree because it is "messy" - in other words, it drops its leaves. I know of the case of a Flame Tree - at least a hundred years old - which flowered magnificently every year until it was felled by new owners of the property. Its crime? It dropped too many leaves! What was the real crime?

So, keep your eyes peeled for these beauties and enjoy the way they highlight the rainforest.


From the newsletter of the Tablelands Branch of the Society for Growing Australian Plants (Queensland) February 1996 (via the Queensland Region's newsletter, March 2005).

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