“Where the river runs those giant hills between”
– Man from Snowy River by Banjo Patterson.
Some of Kosciusko National Park’s most popular walking tracks, including the Snow Gums Boardwalk and the Main Range Walk, start from Charlotte Pass Lookout, and the walks have great signs about the vegetation and climate. But I wrote a few blog posts about the specific plant species and communities you see around Charlotte Pass, and that are representative of a lot of the alpine communities in the Snowy Mountains more generally.
Different combinations of plants grow in different areas depending on the climate, geology, soil, altitude and shape of the land. Because these environmental factors are patchy so too are the communities of plants. The alpine vegetation found in Kosciuszko is unique because it is very patchy over a very small area. For example, if you walk from the top of the chairlift to the top of Kosciuszko most of the hillsides are covered with areas of herbs and grasses, called ‘tall alpine herbfield’. But in amongst this are small patches of other plant communities, for example, where it is particularly wet there are ‘bogs’, and where it is particularly rocky there are small hardy shrubs which make up what we call ‘heath’.
At the top of the hill at the Charlotte Pass lookout, you will find ‘subalpine woodland’. This woodland is made up of the striking Eucaluptus pauciflora, with shrubs, grasses and herbs beneath. Subalpine woodlands are the highest woodlands you will find in Australia.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, as you start going down the hillside you find plant communities that look more alpine-y than a woodland. Surely you would expect to see the woodland at lower elevations? But in situations like this, you get cold air sinking down into the valleys making it a little too cold for trees.
Towards the top of the hill is ‘wet alpine heath‘, which is made of short woody shrubs with tough leaves, with some herbs and grasses growing in patches underneath. The heathland you walk through at Charlotte’s Pass is a little soggy but the shrubby plants do well, particularly Epacris glacialis (Reddish Bog Heath) which likes the crappy drainage and dampness. In the picture below you can see Oxylobium ellipticum (Common Shaggy-Pea), Epacris paludosa (Alpine Heath), Brachyloma daphnoides (Daphne heath) and Leucopogon hookeri (Mountain Beard Heath) all growing close together.
As we go down further into the valley we come across what is called ‘alpine herbfields‘. There are different types of alpine herbfields, but they are all characterised by having lots of herbaceous species (i.e. small, non-woody species), like grasses and daisies. Tall alpine herbfields are the most common type in the area. You will find tall herbfields across Kosciusko National Park, even on top of Kosciuszko itself. Tussock grassland is also a type of alpine herbfield and as you may have guessed you will find lots of tussocky grasses in this plant community. These communities aren’t as tough as some other vegetation types and don’t occur where there is constant snow cover, regular high winds, very stony or very wet soil.
In the photo below you can see a wonderful combination of grasses, orchids, such as Prasophyllum alpestre (Mauve Leek Orchid), and daisies, including Celmisia costiniana (Silver Snow Daisy).
As it gets wetter in the valley we start to see communities we call bogs or fens. ‘Bogs‘ are wetlands with short hard-leaved shrubs all growing very close together (unsurprisingly, very hard to walk through). In the picture below you can see a bog with the shrubs Richea continentis (Candle Heath), Baeckea gunniana (Alpine Baeckea), and Grevillea australis (Alpine Grevillea). You can also see some yellow and white daisies: Celmisia costiniana (Silver Snow Daisy), Craspedia maxgrayi (Billy Button) and Podolepis robusta (Alpine Podolepis).
In amongst the shrubs, you will find clumps of moss. You can see in the picture below the pale green-yellow Sphagnum cristatum, some Richea continentis (Candle Heath) branches and the silvery Astelia alpina (Pineapple Grass).
Areas where there is often standing water and very peaty soils you find communities called ‘fens‘. These are made of shorter more spread out herbs and sedges, including Carex and grasses. In the picture below you can see the carnivorous leaves of Drosera acturi (Alpine Sundew), the bright green clumps of Psychrophila introloba (Alpine Marsh-Marigold), Carpha alpina (Small Flower-Rush), Oreobolis distichus (Fan Tuft-Rush), and the silvery Astelia alpina (Pineapple Grass) delicate white-flowered Oschatzia cuneifolia (Wedge Oschatzia). Once again you will see small intermingled patches of these plant communities over quite a small space.
Now to dig down into these communities more closely (not literally as it is a National Park and that is illegal).
Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts (2009), Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens: Policy Statement 3.16.
Keith, D. (2004) Ocean Shores to Desert Dunes: The Native Vegetation of New South Wales and the ACT. Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), Hurstville.
Totterdell, CJ., Costin AB. & Gray M. (2000) Kosciuszko Alpine Flora: Field Edition. CSIRO Publishing.
PlantNET (The NSW Plant Information Network System). Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Sydney. http://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/
Wapstra, M, Wapstra A, Wapstra, H, (2010) Tasmanian Plant Names Unravelled. Fullers Bookshop, Launceston.