About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Eremophilas; the desert lovers

I am on record as being a passionate orchid-lover (even an orchiholic) but other groups of plants put up a pretty good case for my affections too. I love arid lands (which is as well for an Australian!) where there tend not to be orchids; here there is little doubt as to the subjects of my unashamed - or only a little bit ashamed - favouritism. 
Crimson Turkey Bush Eremophila latrobei, near Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Eremophila means 'desert lover' (what a wonderful name) and the great German-Australian botanist
Ferdinand von Mueller named this one for 1850s Victorian Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe.
This is slightly ironic as Victoria is the only mainland state where it doesn't grow!
Eremophila is a large genus of woody shrubs (and a few small trees) found solely in Australia; the only New Zealand species, the prostrate E. debilis, appears to have been introduced from eastern Australia. There are over 220 named species, with at least another 40 awaiting description. Some have small distributions, most live in remote areas. As I have suggested they are consummate arid land survivors, though they may be found in a variety of habitats, including sand dunes and stony ranges.
Rock Fuchsia Bush E. freelingii, near Alice Springs, central Australia.
Arthur Freeling was South Australian Surveyor-General through the 1850s, and
may have collected the specimen which von Mueller named.

Desert Fuchsia E. gilesii, east of Uluru, central Australia.
Named for the great 19th century desert explorer Ernest Giles, who collected the type specimen.

We have already noted a mix of common names for the group; these include Emu Bush (for the erroneous belief that emus avidly seek them out and are responsible for triggering their germination in their gut), Fuchsia Bush (for the general flower shape), Poverty Bush (for the harsh environments where they are found) and Turkey Bush (probably referring to bustards or 'plains turkeys' in the same general context as Emu Bush). Some (including E. latrobei, above) are toxic to stock and are sometimes referred to as Poison Bush.

Until recently Eremophila was included with Myoporum (and some smaller genera) in the family Myoporaceae; now that whole family has been subsumed into the rather inelegantly named family Scrophulariaceae.

The genus name was bestowed by the eminent Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who sailed with Mathew Flinders on the Investigator from 1801 to 1805. He described two species of Eremophila  from specimens he collected, but both were in the same publication and unusually he didn't nominate one of them as the type species (the 'reference species' by which all later plants included in the genus must be tested). I find it surprising that this situation has not bee retrospectively corrected; for instance if in the future it was decided that that the 'joint type specimens' actually belonged to different genera, there would be no way of determining which would remain Eremophila! The two were named by Brown (who had no way of knowing how many there actually were) very sensibly as E. alternifolia and E. oppositifolia, respectively with alternate and opposite leaves of course.

E. alternifolia (above) and E. oppositifolia (below),
both in Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia.

The flowers are tubular with five petals, surrounded by a shorter tube of five sepals - this can readily be seen in the photo immediately above. However there are two basic flower types, determined by whether they are pollinated by birds or insects. Insect-attracting species tend to be blue or mauve, occasionally white, and with two petals above (often pointing backwards) and three below, protruding to form a landing platform. Their stamens are usually short and enclosed within the the tube.
Turpentine Bush E. clarkei, near Paynes Find, central Western Australia.
Von Mueller named it for one William Clarke who funded the Western Australian expedition which collected it,
but I can't tell you much more about him I'm afraid.
This is a classic insect-pollinated Eremophila.
Here are some more.
E. christopheri (the incorrect form christophori is also often met with), Olive Pink Botanic Gardens,
Alice Springs. It is endemic to the southern Northern Territory.
E. freelingii (above) and E. gilesii (below);
these are close-ups of the shrubs illustrated above.

E. rotundifolia, Coober Pedy, South Australia - this species is almost entirely
restricted to that state.

Scotia Bush E. scoparia, Nullarbor Plain.
This one is found right across dryland southern Australia.
E. willsii, Uluru NP, central Australia, where it grows on red sand dunes.
It was named for William Wills, second in command of the famously disastrous Burke and Wills expedition,
in the year after his death.
Bird-pollinated Eremophilas on the other hand are red, orange, yellow or even green, with four upper petals and one lower petal which is bent back out of the way to deny insects a platform. The stamens usually protrude beyond the tube to contact the face and forehead of the bird. Several of the previous photos illustrate this option, as do the following.
E. forrestii, Mount Magnet, central Western Australia.
Von Mueller named this one for the impressive John Forrest, late 19th century explorer and politician.
Tar Bush E. glabra, Shark Bay, Western Australia.
A very widespread and familiar species, found in every mainland state.
Berrigan, E. longifolia, Uluru NP.
Another ubiquitous species found across the continent; it grows into a small tree.
Spotted Emubush E. maculata, south-west Queensland.
This hugely variable species can be mauve, blue, orange, red or yellow, and with or without spots!

Kopi Poverty Bush E. miniata, Norseman, Western Australia.
Pixie Bush E. oldfieldii, Nallan Station, central Western Australia, east of Geraldton.
Yes another named by von Mueller, this one for Augustus Oldfield, a British-born professional plant collector.
Crimson Eremophila E. punicea, Nallan Station.
The reason for the misleading common name is unclear.
After fertilisation the flower tube drops off and the hitherto relatively inconspicuous sepals grow and develop bright colours to draw attention to the fruits which are mostly bird-distributed.
Burra E. fraseri, Nallan Station; the flower tube has fallen away and the sepals are now very obvious.
This is yet another of von Mueller's, honouring one Malcolm Fraser - not the 20th century prime minister,
but an 1870s Western Australian surveyor-general.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief introduction to these truly beautiful desert-lovers as much as I've enjoyed presenting it. Next time you're driving the outback, keep a special eye out for them.
Bignonia Emubush E. bignonifolia, Windorah, south-west Queensland.


Susan said...

A lovely selection.

And speaking of orchidophilie and Mueller, Narrow-lipped Helleborine Epipactis muelleri is currently flowering on our limestone slopes. And I've just hosted a team from Kew doing field research on Red Helleborine Cephalanthera rubra -- for micropropagation, mychorrizae, tricky laboratory stuff. It was a great experience, not just with them but in French nature conservation politics too :-)

Flabmeister said...

Re E.fraseri is there any connection between the vernacular name and the place names of either the mining town in SA or the riral residential area S of Queanbeyan?

And WRT to species name "not the 20th century prime minister, but an 1870s Western Australian surveyor-general." How come a 21st century naturalist didn't get a mention as a possibility (other than the fact that von Mueller wasn't known as an avid user of a crystal ball)?


Ian Fraser said...

Susan: long time no hear. I've just looked up your orchids - both lovely. Was E. muelleri named for 'our' Mueller?

Martin: given that E. fraseri is a WA endemic, I think that we safely answer you in the negative. As for your other somewhat quixotic question, I am reliably informed that it was definitely named for a Malcolm Fraser, WA S-G, which leaves your mysterious contemporary naturalist well out of the picture (aside from more minor issues involved, as you suggest).

Susan said...

I've just checked for Mueller. The orchid is named after Herman Müller, a German botanist who was a friend of Darwin's and an exact contemporary of Ferdinand von Mueller.

Ian Fraser said...

Excellent info thanks Susan, I didn't know of him.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ian for this wonderful information. I have found it very interesting and quite useful as I am currently growing several ermophilas at a local regional garden in the Arid Gardens section. I have always found them very special, but this extra knowledge adds to that. Regards Kerry

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Kerry - it's good to hear from you, and I am delighted that I could be of some use. I do an irregular series on native-oriented botanic gardens and would love to visit yours some time for a story when I'm in the area. Where are you based? Feel free to write to me at calochilus51@internode.on.net, or just leave a message here. Best wishes, Ian

Annamária said...

Hi Ian!
Thanks for all this information about this species,
they are very useful to me. I am happy to follow your activities.
Regards, Annamaria from Transylvania.