Nature Nerd Field Guides - Cushion Plants

Deep within the southern wilderness roams a wild breed of human; the eternally curious and courageous nature nerds. We’ve ventured southward, wrangled their wild spirits and propped them in front of a computer to explain their finds. Today Fiona Gumboots gives us the lowdown on cushion plants.

Cushion Plants
by Fiona Gumboots

Cushion plants. The name is misleading. When I think of cushions I think of soft and squishy that you stick under your butt to make your sitting down time more comfortable. The Cushion plants you find in the mountains of Tasmania are pretty much the opposite of all those things. If you were stuck on a mountain with nothing to sit on, a Cushion plant won’t help you. Trying to sit on one will also not help it either. So, don’t do that.

Cushion plants form relatively hard (to varying degrees) mats of tiny little sticky up foliage mounds. You would be forgiven to think it was one plant, because it looks like it would be. Upon closer inspection you will quite often find a mix of species growing together. All tightly packed in like little penguins huddling from the cold. The biggest difference here is that the ones on the outside don’t get to swap with the inside ones, they just have to wait around until more little penguins grow at the edges.

Cushion plant habitat by Fiona Gumboots

Cushion plant communities can be divided up into four groups, depending on their location and the species included in their make-up, so they can vary a bit from mountain region to mountain region. It’s a bit confusing but all up we have six species of cushion plant that fall into five different families. There are a few others which can grow in a cushiony form, however we generally leave those out because they aren’t exclusively cushion forming.

Abrotanella forsteroides, Pterygopappus lawrencei, Dracophyllum minimum and Veronica ciliolate are all endemic to Tasmania. Colobanthus pulvinatus, Donatia novae-zelandiae and Phyllachne colensoi are found on other places on the mainland or over the ditch in New Zealand. Now remember those names, there will be a spelling test…

Aside from everything being my favourite, Veronica ciliolate is my favourite favourite. It’s a special little threatened guy only found on Ben Lomond. I want to say just one little craggy bit of Ben Lomond, but I can’t be sure. Last time I was up there my friend Amanda and I did a run up the hill in the blasting wind and rain to find it. It was a great little mission, and we weren’t disappointed, the plant nerds that we are…

Veronica ciliolate by Fiona Gumboots

Cushion plants are a pretty important part of the ecosystem. They are homes for all kinds of little invertebrates as most plant communities are, and we all know how important invertebrates are.  The mats they form across the landscape act as an insulation, which helps the roots of the nearby plants not freeze. They can also act as little sheltered spots for seeds of other plants to germinate, so quite often you will find other types of plants poking up through them. Oh and they look super awesome. If you have ever been up to Newdegate Pass at Mount Field then you will know how truly spectacular they look in all their glory.

Probably the most important bit to remember is to keep to the tracks and don’t tread on the penguins.

Fiona Gumboots is a person of many obsessions who spends her time trying to combine them all. Photography and a passionate love of science keeps her out and about exploring everything she can find in the natural world. From the beauty of a sunset and auroras to the intricate details of the world of fungi and the lower plant kingdom, she is never short of something to keep her mind racing. In between her fascination with the natural world she spends her time studying plant science at UTAS, hanging out with her husband and kids, martial arts and generally getting side-tracked with the latest obsession that has caught her fancy.

Feature image: Fiona Gumboots







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