• Date: 22nd January 2016
  • author: Simon Begg.

The Vireya Hunting Expedition to North Queensland 2012

As reported in the last issue of The Vireya Venture, members of The Australian Rhododendron Society, and others, recently conducted an expedition to the region around Cairns in North Queensland, Australia, to look for vireya rhododendrons, specifically R. lochiae and R. viriosum. Several expedition members provided comments and reports about the trip and these appeared in the October 2012 issue of the ARS Vic. Br. Newsletter, edited by Simon Begg. With their permission, this article is an extract and/or selection from the report in that Newsletter.

First from John O'Hara:

September saw a group of ARS members involved in an expedition to North Queensland to observe the Rhododendrons lochiae and viriosum in their native habitat. Not every member of the expedition got to the location of every Rhododendron population, but overall the expedition examined four mountain top populations and it would have to be deemed a huge success.

The expedition proved to be an enormously enjoyable activity for the participants. It is a great joy travelling with people who share the same interests. The members had an interest in plants in general not just Rhododendrons. How else could you convince others to join you on a drive that took all afternoon just to look at a wattle which grows only 150mm high and has purple flowers - Acacia purpureapetala at Irvinebank - or trek through leach infested rainforest just to see some rare tall trees (Stockwellia quadrifida) and still think you had had a good day.

Expedition members assembled in Malanda Falls Caravan Park (about 70km south of Cairns in North Queensland) from Thursday 30th August to Saturday 1st September. They comprised Robert Hatcher, ARS National Council President, (South Australia) and Jacki Hatcher, John O'Hara, President of the ARS Victorian Branch, Prue Crome, Andrew Rouse, Dan MacLeod and Simon and Marcia Begg (all from Victoria) and Ian Chalk (Emu Valley in Tasmania).

Expedition members at Malanda : Simon and Marcia Begg, Prue Crome, Andrew Rouse, John OHara, Rob and Jacki Hatcher, front Dan Macleod and Ian Chalk

There was drama just getting there as Rob and Jacki rolled their vehicle near Moomba in North East South Australia and had to be air ambulanced to Broken Hill and then back to Adelaide. They assessed their bruises and decided to continue, this time flying to Cairns rather than driving.

The plan was, in the 2 weeks available, to explore Mt Bartle Frere, Mt Bellenden Ker and Bell's Peak for R. lochiae, and Mt Lewis, Mt Finnegan and Windsor Tableland for R. viriosum, and to return in 2013 to explore as many as possible of the remaining North Queensland peaks known to have Vireya populations.

The plan began to be realised at the ARS National Council in October 2011, but its genesis was Simon's visit to the Vireya Species Glasshouse at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in May 2008.

At Edinburgh, Dr George Argent showed Marcia and Simon, as well as a number of other ARS members, the treasured collection, undoubtedly the world's best. Included were the two Australian species. Dr Argent stated that there were differences between different plants of R. viriosum, for example in their seeds. He noted that, unlike almost every other Vireya species in the collection, these Australian plants had no definitive provenance. They lacked basic information as to the source mountain, GPS co-ordinates and altitude as well as growing conditions.

Marcia and Simon went next to Amsterdam to visit their daughter and family. There, Simon wrote the May/June 2008 Newsletter and researched material for the article he included in it, Australia's Native Rhododendrons: Their Provenance.

In doing his research, Simon came across, quite by accident, Mary Gandini's 2002 paper, An investigation of Rhododendron lochiae F. Muell. Its taxonomy, distribution and genetic variance. Mary's paper is very short and Simon quoted almost all of it in his 2008 Newsletter article. In her paper Mary detailed her ascent of the Nth Queensland mountains collecting specimens for her DNA study of the Australian species. Her opinion was that there was only one species, not two, but that more work needed to be done to express a definitive view.

Australia does not have a surplus of taxonomists. Lyn Craven CSIRO, Canberra (and a longstanding ARS member) is on his own for rhododendrons, and he is now retired, though still working. Back in 2008 Lyn maintained the view that he and Dr Bob Withers expressed in 1996 that there were 2 Australian species.
However, in October 2010 when both Lyn and Dr Sue Gardiner (Principal Scientist, Plant Gene Mapping, The Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand Limited) were speakers at the ARS' Golden Jubilee Conference at Olinda, they discussed the idea of a further study into the Australian rhododendrons and they involved Mary Gandini, and through her the Australian Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University in Cairns (

This further study, which is yet to be completed, gave added impetus to the expedition. Simon asked Mary for help in the planning and execution of ARS' 2012 expedition which she willingly gave. Mary's herbarium specimens from 2002 remain but none of her cuttings survived in Cairns. Ironically, they would have survived at Olinda in Victoria or other cooler southern locations or even in the Atherton Tableland.

The plan required permits to collect cuttings, however the permits were not granted and so the collection of live material could not take place. Despite this disappointment, the expedition went ahead with the intention of assessing Rhododendron populations and gaining an understanding of their locations and habitats in preparation for when the appropriate permits are granted. Site visits proved to be a problem at Mt Bellenden-Ker because the Cable Car was out of commission for non-telecommunications personnel until mid 2013 due to cyclone damage. Permission to visit the Windsor Tableland was not granted despite personal representations from a permit holder.

Mt Lewis

The expedition set out early on Monday 3rd September to drive to the end of the Mt Lewis Road. Four volunteers accompanied us from the Queensland Tropical Herbarium, Mary Gandini, Garry Sankowsky, his wife Nada and Rod Patterson. Garry is a world-leading expert on Queensland wet tropic plants. Nada and Rod Patterson were, inter alia, fern experts and Mary was no slouch with plants beyond vireyas. We gained, in a day, an education that might otherwise take weeks of intense study.

Robert Hatcher on edge of rocky outcrop on Mt Lewis

We found plants of the Mt Lewis form of R. viriosum at 1236m, according to Prue Crome's altimeter, but without our guides we would never have found them. They were about 100m off the road about 200m from its present end on a rocky outcrop facing the prevailing SE winds.

This site was found about 30 years ago by a Mr Bruce Gray, who still visits it on occasion. The site is near, rather than on, Mt Lewis and the road originally went on to Mt Sturgeon during forestry operations. Our guides told us there are 3 R. viriosum sites on or near Mt Lewis, all similar.

Expedition members differed in their opinions of the (long-term survivability) of this vireya colony. Rob Hatcher thought it not at risk. If the present conditions continue this might be so, but Simon observed that this colony, said to be 200m x 50m in extent, was perched precariously on granite rocks on the edge of a south east facing escarpment.

R viriosum habitat

The plants were having a hard time of it, compared with R. viriosum in cultivation. Many older plants had grown horizontally rather than vertically. They also showed very small annual growth, only the current year's leaves retained and were very straggly plants with many, if not most, leaves having suffered insect attack. There were many new seedlings on the edge of the rocks but few growing younger plants. Obviously, few new seedlings survive their early years.

All plants were terrestrial or lithophytic (growing on rocks), but a drought could permit a fire to move up the mountain from below. Could the whole escarpment slide into the valley below in a landslide? More generally, can a species, or two if there are two, be of low risk if they are found only in isolated colonies on or near the tops on tropical mountains near or above 1000m? We were assured by our guides that nearby colonies at Mt Sturgeon and Windsor Tableland were much healthier with many plants epiphytic. We all agreed there is much yet to learn of the migration of these plants to Australia and their 'natural' growing conditions.

R viriosum growing in thick mossy covered rocks on Mt Lewis

The R. viriosum was found to growing in an exposed area, but some overhead cover was provided by Leptospermum wooroonooran, a tea-tree of very limited distribution. The Rhododendrons grew in areas of thick moss and in association with Paphia (Agapetes) meiniana, its ericaceae cousin, with its pretty tubular flowers and Dendrobium agrostophyllum. Orchids were common on the rocks and in the trees, with Dendrobium jonesii and Dendrobium speciosum in full bloom. Cymbidium madidum was also found growing as a terrestrial amongst the Rhododendrons. Plants also found growing in the immediate area included Alxyia oreophila and a species of Zieria with its pungent leaves.

We were fortunate that Garry, in particular, had the patience to show us some of the special Mt Lewis plants, both at the top of the mountain and as we drove back down towards Mt Molloy.

Ferns were prolific, with the road bordered for much of the way by Cyathea rebeccae, its fairly simple fronds contrasted in some of the brighter spots by the lacy fronds and ridiculously slender trunk of Cyathea robertsiana. At one point, just off the road, Cyathea bailyana, with its odd hairy upper trunk, was making it clear where it gets its common name of wig fern.

Family Proteaceae were well represented and included Carnarvonia, with its bright red new growth and Placospermum with its huge juvenile leaves being found near where we parked at the end of the road. Shade for the cars was provided by a big Sphalium racemosum. The Proteaceae highlight was Garry taking us to a patch of Stenocarpus davallioides where the huge mature trees were interesting, but it was the small seedling looking just like the ferns they are named after that caught our attention.

Mt Lewis proved to be the only site Marcia and Simon visited, though, at the time, Simon had hoped to climb Mt Finnegan. Mt Finnegan is the most northerly Vireya colony and, from Mary Gandini's paper, as well as earlier views of Bob Withers and Lyn Craven, the likely original source of Vireya in Australia - unless the rumour, that there are Vireyas in the Iron Range North of Cooktown, proves true. As the highest point in that range is only 500m that seems unlikely.

Ascent of Mt Bartle Frere and observations of Rhododendron lochiae by Rob Hatcher

On Tuesday 4th September six members of the expedition, JO'H, PC, DM, IC, RH and JH, started to ascend Mt Bartle Frere from the Atherton side.

Dan Macleod, John OHara, Prue Crome, Ian Chalk, Robert Hatcher and Jackie Hatcher

Kicking off from around the 700m above sea level we climbed to around 1450m and camped for the night. This took us from around 8.00am to around 3.30pm. Markers of the trail were often hard to locate and the going was at times reasonably challenging. There was misty rain overnight and a fair amount of wind. Most members woke after a reasonable rest and, after breakfast, resumed the climb to the summit.

Dan Macleod walking underneath our first encounter with R lochiae on Mt Bartle Frere

Vegetation altered at around 1500m away from tropical montane forest to more heathland and coral fern. Many genera from within the Epacridaceae (now included within Ericaceae) were encountered alongside the path. At around 1550m we encountered R. lochiae in flower with a beautiful truss. The plants we saw at this location were growing in similar conditions to R. viriosum at Mt Lewis, on top of granitic boulders and among a lot of sphagnum.

R lochiae on Mt Bartle Frere

Moving straight on to the summit, as we had made the decision to go over the top and down to Josephine falls the night before, we reached this at around 10.30am. After getting the photo opportunity over we started down.

Ian Chalk and John O'Hara at the peak of Mt Bartle Frere

Summit Mt. Bartle Frere; 5th September 2012
Ian Chalk and John O'Hara

This is where you might say the fun started. The boulder fields on the Josephine falls side of Bartle Frere are apparently not easy even in good conditions. When we encountered them the rain, which up until then had been fairly light, started to increase in intensity combined with what could be called a stiff breeze. There were Rhododendrons at this location, again at around 1550 to 1600m. To say this part of the climb was tough is understating it. The next hour was spent traversing these boulders in very tough weather conditions. I hope members of the ARS that may read this will forgive the glossing over Rhododendron observations as survival became paramount.

A section of the boulder field

Once we had crossed the boulder fields, with some assistance from personnel of the Australian armed forces, we encountered a sign, which read:

"If you have come up from Josephine Falls and get to this point and it is raining turn around and go back down. It is too dangerous to proceed."

Needless to say, while I laughed out loud when I read it, my laughter was more from an ironic position than a humorous one. The rest of the trek was all down hill for 7kms and with many steep and awkward spots to get through. Sheer hard slog, accompanied by the occasional leach of course. At the 3km to go mark, we the stragglers, Jacki and myself and Dan who had stayed with us all the way to give us support, met with Andrew Rouse who gave Jacki a well earned rest from her pack. Arrival at the Josephine Falls car park was at around 6 pm.

As a consequence of the harsh conditions observations of Rhododendron lochiae on Bartle Frere were somewhat cursory by comparison to Mt Lewis and, later on, Bells Peak and Mt Finnegan. However some conclusions can be drawn.

The vireya populations on Bartle Frere grow in much the same conditions as on Mt Lewis, though perhaps slightly more exposed to the elements. They do perch precariously on boulders and, to the eye of a gardener, do look somewhat bedraggled and moth eaten. They are in locations that receives high rainfall and would rarely dry out, even in the dry season. Their survival would be at risk if this regular moisture disappeared.

Collection of material from Mt Bartle Frere would have to be rated as hard and field pressing would not be recommended because of carrying equipment. Unless there is evidence of imminent extinction my personal view is that the population on Mt Bartle Frere can remain as a known entity and only be collected if absolutely necessary.

As Editor of the ARS Newsletter, Simon Begg writes: There are important issues of genetic differences between the disjunct R. lochiae and R. viriosum populations and between those same species from different locations and the questions of their source, development and history in Australia. This was the point of Mary Gandini's 2002 paper and the subject now being studied at the Queensland Tropical Herbarium with participation by Lyn Craven and Sue Gardiner. For this study Lyn believes additional specimens are needed.

Having been up Mt Bartle Frere and encountering the tough conditions, Rob Hatcher's opinion of what was needed before looking on Mt Bellenden Ker, even with access by cable car, was for better knowledge of where the plants are located. Independently, Simon had discussed this issue Mary Gandini, who had been there. She provided a map of locations and volunteered to find us a guide. She also warned us of the need for gloves to protect from sword grass.

Bell Peak North by Prue Crome

Bell Peak North is south of Cairns, on the Malbon Thompson Range and north east of the Bellenden Ker range. The peak is on Yarrabah Aboriginal Land, which abuts the Coral Sea and the only access is from the western side through private property and state forest. The climb took place on Sunday 11th September, was by Ian Chalk, Dan MacLeod and Prue Crome, and they had the assistance of the Cairns Bushwalkers who arranged access and then led and marked the route.

The party of 20 set out from sea level in fine, warm, humid conditions and had a steady climb through dense coastal rainforest. It took approximately 4 hours to reach the summit at 1026m where the wind whistled through the communication tower. The view along the coast, from which the bush walkers gain their reward, was non-existent due to the low cloud, wind and rain that had started closing in as we neared the top and persisted for a few hours, only clearing when were back at the bottom.

Morning tea time on Bell Peak North ascent with Cairns bush walkers

Cairns Bushwalkers about to guide the Expedition up Bells Peak North, 9th September 2012
The first R. lochiae appeared over the lip of the peak, facing south-east, sheltered in forest yet on top of a rock exposed to light and moisture. This first large flower was nothing compared to the population that was accessed by a sheer vertical decent through forest onto large boulders at approximately 998m facing the prevailing winds to the south east.

An enormous flower head on R lochiae on Bell Peak North -photo Dan Macleod

The sight of R. lochiae in full flower, with their bright red blooms shining through the gusting clouds, negated the pain of my frozen hands and cold wet body. The plants were magnificent both in form and flower. They ranged in size up to approximately 1.5 meters high and 1 meter wide, some dense and well formed and others straggly, depending on exposure and their position. Leaves were generally large and entire and were maintained on the stem, unlike those on Mt Lewis, and the plants were very healthy with little insect damage. The more exposed plants displayed sun colouration and wind damage.

Prue Crome in step terrain amongst boulders

The botanical characteristics were generally as described by Dr G. Argent, "Rhododendrons of subgenus vireya" p324, with the leaves broadly elliptic etc. but the inflorescence was 6-12 flowered, not the 2-6 as in Argent's description. There were many buds still to come, so the peak flowering period might extend for some time. It would be very difficult to ascertain whether this was a usual or a freak flowering event without further investigation.

The vireyas were lithophytic and terrestrial with roots within a tangle of vegetation and moss covered humic matter that had collected on and in rock crevices. The composition of the vegetative layer that protected the vireya roots were ferns, vines and stunted trees and shrubs. Paphia (Agapetes) meiniana was present but not as dominant as on Mt Lewis and Mt Bartle Frere. More specific to Bell Peak North were Syzygium leuhmannii, Plectranthus sp., Cissus sp., a fern like Nephrolepis sp., and some unidentified shrubs, as well as Zieria sp., Timonius singularis, Leucopogon sp. Dendrobium speciosum were in full flower on the larger exposed boulders.

Rhododendron lochiae in habitat

Given we were accompanied by the Cairns Bush walkers our schedule necessarily needed to work in with theirs, so time exploring the vireya population was limited. It was very hard to evaluate the size of the population due to the compromised viewing conditions and very steep terrain. The decent was made easy due to the lingering excitement of abundant flowering and it was definitely the highlight, for me, of the vireya survey on this expedition.

Mt Finnigan by John O'Hara

By the second week of our expedition, work commitments and ill health, both at home and within our party, had taken their toll. So by the time we headed off towards Cooktown and the ascent of Mt Finnigan we were reduced to four members, Ian Chalk, Prue Crome, Dan Macleod and John O'Hara.
We based ourselves at Helenvale, 30km SW of Cooktown, staying at the self-described "œiconic" Lions Den Hotel (three of us in a safari tent and Ian in no less than a Donga).

Prior to heading to Queensland, we had organized for Charlie Roberts, a holder of land at the base of Mt Finnigan, to act as guide. We met him at his property at Shiptons Flat early on Tuesday11th September. After a brief introduction it was off on foot through his grazing property and up the northwest ridge of the mountain.

The ridge was a steady climb through mostly open woodland, being eucalypt woodland (some plants being Euc. Pellita and Neolitsea dealbata (grey Bollywood)) at the base with pockets of rainforest species, including Australian Red Cedar (toona ciliata), Kauri Pine (Agathus robusta), Brown Pine (Podocarpus grayae) and Northern Silky Oak (Cardwellia sublimis).

checking the tree species

Half way up to the top, Charlie Roberts left us to our own devices, saying,"you can't get lost from here". This was true for the climb up, but we got lost twice on the way down!
At about the half way point, parts of the forest were reminiscent of a Mornington Peninsular foreshore, with the upper story dominated by Banksia and Casurina, only here the Banksia was aquilonia and the Casurina intratropica.

A compact R. viriosum on Mt Finnigan

The western peak (Mt Finnigan has about 4 peaks) was reached after about 3.5 hours of walking. The weather at the top was, as for most of the other mountains climbed, challenging; strong winds, thick wet mist, surprisingly cool for the latitude and not pleasant for humans. The rainforest stopped at the top of the mountain, the winds obviously limited everything to the height of the rocks forming the razorback ridge.

John OHara ducking under dense vegetation on peak of Mt Finnigan

We found R. viriosum amongst the rocks, either in crevices between rocks or growing from cracks in rocks where enough humus might collect, and occasionally away from the very top of the mountain, at the base of the rocks. This very pretty oversized rock garden in which the Rhododendrons were growing also contained Paphia meiniana, Zieria sp, Timonius singularis, Leucopogon sp, and surprisingly Tecomanthe vines (in Flower). Every surface, either rock or the nearby tree branches, was festooned with orchids, many in flower.

We lunched at this peak of the mountain after which we went along the razorback for a short way, but the cold was getting into our bones and so we decided to head back down. The R. viriosum we found during this part of the expedition differed significantly from those we had seen on Mt Lewis. They appeared very healthy, well clothed in thick smallish leaves and were short, well branched tight bushes about 300mm tall and perhaps half as much again across.

A compact R. viriosum nestled in a rock crevice on Mt Finnigan

This short stature was understandable for bushes in areas of high exposure to the wind, with this leading to wind pruning, but the bushes remained short even in sheltered positions.

Some plants on the edge of rocks grew with their branches hanging down, forming neat pendulous bushes. There was no sign of flowers, either as flower buds, spent flowers or seed capsules. When they did occur they were common but their distribution was limited to the highly exposed areas or in the immediate vicinity.

Some Conclusions

Rhododendrons were easily found on the tops of all the mountains we climbed. They were fairly common if given the right conditions, but the right conditions were of very limited extent and confined to the exposed tops of mountains. We only saw them growing on or immediately adjacent to large granite boulders.

There was considerable variation between the appearances of plants from different locations. The Mt Lewis viriosums and Mt Bartle Frere lochiaes were generally very scraggy plants, tall and sparsely branched, their flower trusses had only a few flowers per truss (based on only a few sightings). Mt Finnigan plants were stout, good shaped bushes, but we did not see any flowers. Bells Peak provided the highlight of the trip, its plants were healthy, well formed and carried numerous trusses with more flowers per truss than what we have seen in cultivation.

Further Work

If no collecting permit is ever issued to us then there is still much which can be achieved. The Bells Peak exercise shows that poorly explored regions can give exciting results. Places like Thornton Peak and Devils Thumb are well explored and we will probably find little new there. There are however places like Bells Peak South and Mt Tozer in the Iron Range, well north of Cooktown, both of which are reported by reliable sources to have Rhododendron populations. The species and nature of the plants in these locations is not known.

If a permit to collect is issued to us then there is a lot more work that needs to be done. Garden trials of plants collected from different locations would lead to an understanding of their differing growth and flowering habits. DNA studies are needed to resolve the issue of the evolutionary history of the Australian species and whether there is more than one species.


This trip brought ARS members from three states together and it provided opportunities to get to know other ARS members and have a very enjoyable (if not very strenuous) time. It significantly improved the knowledge of our Australian Rhododendrons, not only within the expedition party but also more widely throughout the ARS. If this study can be continued on into the future then it could provide an avenue by which young fit members could be attracted and to take part is more such expeditions.


Comments by the Editors: from The Vireya Venture January 2013
At least one of us (Graham Price) was very envious of those who went on this expedition. However, work circumstances did not allow it and his ability to climb anything is doubtful. Just the idea of all that strenuous climbing in the cold and wet, puts a shiver up the other one (Janet Price).
Learning about the natural environment in which the two Australian vireyas grow, why they are only found in these limited, mountain-top locations, and how they are able to live and even thrive in the cooler climes of southern Australia, has been an enduring fascination for Graham. Maybe he can go with the team next year.