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04/12/2017

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15/11/2017

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10/11/2017

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Alpine and Subalpine Plants of Tasmania

Communities

Subalpine and Alpine Shrubby Heaths

Scoparia

Some of the various colours of scoparia
(Photography by Peter Grant)

Highland heaths are highly diverse and variable, from dense shrubberies up to 2m tall in sheltered areas to sparse, open small shrubs and grassy species with incursions of sedges and small ferns. Soft herbs hide under the shrubs in most heaths and in those burnt during the last 50 years grass and herbs may be abundant. Heaths may occur without tree cover, but often have a sparse canopy of Snow Gums and/or pines in the northern alpine area.

Heaths long unburnt usually contain several species of dwarf conifers and/or Yellow Bush (Orites acicularis). The dullerOrites revoluta occurs in burnt and unburnt heaths, as does the spectacular Honey Richea (Richea scoparia), which dominates some heaths but is absent from others. Pineapple Grass (Astelia alpina) occurs in many climax heaths and is also a pioneer species after fire. Members of the daisy and epacrid families are abundant though variable in alpine heaths, and there may also be Boronias, Hibbertia, Pimelea and small tea trees. Subalpine heaths commonly have taller shrubs such as Waratah (Telopea truncata), Hakeas, pea flowers and Baeckea gunniana.

Grassy heaths are often rich in herbaceous daisies as well as both prostrate and upright woody shrubs. Trigger Plants (Stylidium graminifolium) may make a bright summer show.

Grasslands

Pineapple grass

Pineapple Grass
(Photo by Steve Johnson)

Alpine grasslands are an uncommon community in Tasmania, occurring mainly in broad, deep-soil basins on dolerite on the Central Plateau and on basalt flows in the northern parts of the highlands. Cold air drainage and a dense mat of grass roots usually discourages eucalypt germination and the grasslands are treeless, although the frost-tolerant Eucalyptus gunnii and/or E. rodwayii may grow on the fringes.

Most grasslands are dominated by silvery tussocks of one or more species of Poa but taller grasses (eg Deschampsia caespitose) and sedges may occupy wetter areas, passing into wetland vegetation in swamps near some lakes. In wet areas grassland may be interrupted by cushion plants overgrown with epacrids and sedges. Drier heathy grasslands are often very rich in colourful herbs, with an open canopy of small shrubs, particularly Richea acerosa and Lissanthe montana.

Cushion Plants

Alpine species from five different plant families in Tasmania have evolved dense, ground-hugging forms known as cushion plants. All but one is endemic. Cushion plants may form narrow "rivers" along drainage lines or be scattered through alpine heath or sedgeland, but are at their most spectacular where they form extensive sheets on thin, peaty soils on alpine plateaux. This can occur on dolerite or siliceous rocks where soil has be scraped off by glacial erosion. Cushion plant sheets are usually a mosaic of three or four species, laced with wind-pruned rows and thickets of densely packed montane rainforest and heath species.

Abrotonella forsteroides and Pterygopappus lawrencii are two cushion species well able to recover from fire, and in places such as Newdegate Pass (Mt. Field National Park) they have modified the drainage by forming a series if ponds in which silt can collect and woody plants may eventually recolonise.

Moorlands

Where soils are low in nutrients and the land is exposed to wind and icy storms trees rarely survive and moorland species keep a low profile.

Buttongrass

Buttongrass moorlands
(Photo by Steve Johnson)

In the lowest parts of the subalpine zone buttongrass moorlands are common. Buttongrass (Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus) may dominate, the clumps separated by sedges such as Lepidosperma filiforme and Restio species or golden Coral Fern (Gleichenia alpina). Buttongrass reaches altitudes of 1050m where soil fertility is low and fire frequency high. Around Cradle Mountain, Buttongrass forms broad mosaics with Coral Fern (Gleichenia alpina).

Above the Buttongrass on siliceous rocks Baeckea gunniana, the tea tree Leptospermum nitidum and the purple Melaleuca squameum extend to the top of the subalpine zone, with Dracophyllum milliganii, Anemone crassifolia, the lily Isophysis and small shrubs of Varnished Gum(Eucalyptus vernicosa) making their first appearance. Varnished Gum is the smallest species of Eucalypt in the world.

Alpine moorlands are dominated by sedges - Restio species, Carpha alpina and Empodisma minus, with the epacrids Dracophyllum milliganii, Epacris serpyllifolia and Sprengelia incarnata var montana. Coral Fern, Milligans Lily (Milligania densiflora) and Pineapple Grass occur in some moors, Isophysis in others and there may be few or many cushion plants. The moorland community also forms openings between coniferous shrubberies in more sheltered areas.

Herbfields

Grassy herbfields are small but spectacular, the best examples found in the sandstone country in the centre of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. ClairNational Park. They generally occur on steep, wet slopes of deep silt below and between clifflines, and may be interrupted by clumps of small pines. Most herbfields are dominated by Poa gunnii and other grasses, and carry a wide variety of small herbs, almost all with white flowers. Many of the plants may be hard to identify since the herbfields provide a welcome food source for native herbivores and are eaten very low. Mountain Rocket (Bellendena montana) is the only important shrub but there may be a little Helichrysum backhousii and Creeping Pine (Microcachrys tetragona).Milligans Lilies hang over the dripping clifftops.

Subalpine and Alpine Woodlands

Snowgum

Beautifully coloured bark
is a feature of the snow gum
(Photo by Steve Johnson)

Small, twisted snow gums are found up to 1300m on mountain sides and exposed alpine plateaux, with lower limits for the species at the bottom of the subalpine zone at about 700m. E. coccifera prefers dolerite though it is sometimes found on sedimentary rocks, particularly in the Cradle Mountain area; it is uncommon in Southwest Tasmania. The high altitude woodlands typically occur on very rocky ground, with a sparse understorey of heathy shrubs dominated by Richea sprengelioides and other epacrids. Heaths at lower altitudes are generally taller and thicker, overtopped by E. coccifera alone or with E. subcrenulata or E. gunnii (which is found at the edges of cold, swampy valleys). The highest E. delegatensis forests typically occur on subalpine heaths up to 1050m, fringed by E. cocciferaor E. pauciflora woodlands. On very rocky ground the heath under E. delegatensis may be little more than prickly Cyathodes juniperina.

Pine Forests and Thickets

Pencil Pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) form open forests in a few places on dolerite in the northern alpine area, some with grass under but more usually on or near scree fields with woody alpine heath and small conifers, particularly Podocarpus alpina. On both dolerite and siliceous rocks Pencil Pines may form montane dwarf forests with a dense understorey of Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) and prostrate heath species, ferns and sedges in the openings. Many Pencil Pines occur as isolated trees or small clumps along water courses and around lakes, sometimes surrounded by Sphagnum bogs. At high altitudes on quartzite pencil pines may form the centres of thickets (sometimes accompanied by King Billy pines), surrounded by a fringe of dwarf pines and Richea scoparia. Pencil Pines are rare on mountains in southwest Tasmania.

King Billy Pines (Athrotaxis selaginoides) overlap with Pencil Pines (but are generally subordinate to them) on quartzitic rocks in the northern area, but are uncommon on dolerite. Around the Central Plateau, King Billy pines are consistently found in high level sub-plateau rainforests. King Billy pine comes into its own in southwest and western Tasmania, where it is a minor component of many subalpine rainforests (usually on steep slopes) but dominates montane dwarf rainforests, where it is nearly always associated with stunted, many-trunked myrtles (Nothofagus cunninghamii), Dwarf Leatherwood (Eucryphia milliganii) and tall Pandani (Richea pandanifolia). Montane shrubberies dominated by King Billy pines have the above species plus many more including the dwarf varnished gum (Eucalyptus vernicosa), Port Davey Plum (Cenarrhenes nitida), White Waratah (Agastachys odorata), Orites diversifolia, and in some areas a tall umbrella-like from of the tea tree Leptospermum nitidum. Thickets may be even more diverse, tapering outwards with many heath species and bounded by open sedgeland.

Dense shrubberies and thickets dominated by King Billy pines over Deciduous Beech and the holly-like Orites milliganii are a feature of the West Coast Range but generally only occur as remnants on mountains in Southwest Tasmania.

Many hundreds of hectares of King Billy pine have been lost to fire in Southwest and western Tasmania in the last 200 years and regeneration of pines and deciduous beech is rarely seen, although most of the associated species have recovered.