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Plants on Lady Elliot Island

I’m impressed with the plants on Lady Elliot island as much as the reef itself.  They thrive in conditions that are extreme and provide a haven for all other life in the middle of the wilderness of the ocean.  The bushes, trees and ground covers have devised ways to overcome salt water, heat and winds that would kill less tenacious plants.  Coral cays are colonized by plants and animals in stages and they all work together to make a home that offers protection and food for all inhabitants and visitors.

There are 4 plants that colonize and stabilize coral cays first, and they are all represented and protected on Lady Elliot Island:

1. Birds’ Beak grass – Thuarea involute   

Bird's Beak Grass (Thuarea involute)

Bird’s Beak Grass (Thuarea involute)


 This is nearly always the very first plant to colonize a coral cay.  It sends out runners and helps stabilize the surface of the cay.  This is the primary ground cover on Lady Elliot Island. The leaves are soft and covered in fine hairs.


2. Octopus Bush – Helioptropium foetherianum

Octopus bush fruit.

Octopus bush fruit.

Octopus Bush (Heliotropium foetherianum)

Octopus Bush (Heliotropium foetherianum)

This is often the second plant that grows on a coral cay, and is also found all over Lady Elliot Island.  It has fairly large leaves and this plant spreads out quickly.  It’s called Octopus bush because the seed pods look like octopus tentacles and as fruits mature the “tentacles” move and twist around.  All leaf stalks have one yellow leaf.  As these plants live in a very salty environment, they cleverly divert all the salt from water uptake into a sacrificial leaf.  Bite into a yellow leaf and taste the excess salt that’s being excreted by the plant.  The green ones are sweet.








3. Walking Palm – Pandanus tectorius

It doesn’t matter where this tree starts growing as it “walks” toward the water very slowly and prefers to live in the shallows.  It walks by growing new roots in the direction of the water and letting the old ones drop off behind.


Typically the colonizer plants get to the coral cays via birds…droppings to be exact, because the plants all produce fruits the birds like to eat.  The seeds don’t totally digest, they just pass through the gut and are expelled.

The fruit of the Pandanus is shown in the upper central part of this picture.  You can also see those amazing roots that help the Pandanus “walk” toward the water no matter where they started growing!

4. PisoniaPisonia grandis

The fourth most important early colonizer plant is the Pisonia grandis.  This is a very large tree that sends out strong roots and provides the most solid and wonderful shade on coral cays and islands.  It’s at least 10 degrees cooler under a Pisonia than in the sun.  There are only four of the original trees left on Lady Elliot Island, and they are hundreds of years old.  The other old trees were cut down in the years that the island was being mined for guano.  Guano mining is no longer allowed and there is a program underway  to replant the island with more Pisonia trees to restore the island.

Pisonia tree

Pisonia tree

Pisonia grandis

Pisonia grandis

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