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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Great Sandy Desert: #3, trees and herbs

This was to be the last in this series based on my recent experiences in the remote and relatively little-known Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia (which began here) but I've realised that I've got quite a large number of plant photos - I was there in a rare good season, when a lot of plants were flowering after substantial rains. I could of course just make a limited selection, which is what I'd probably do normally, but because few of my readers will probably have an opportunity to go there, and most of the plants will thus be unfamiliar, I've decided to introduce them pretty comprehensively, in two postings. In deference to those with less interest in the topic I'll take a break from the series next week, and talk about something entirely different, before coming back to finish by talking about some desert shrubs in a fortnight.

(And before going on, if you read the last posting, on animals of the desert, you might be interested in looking at the unexpected solution to the mysterious mud pellets surrounding the burrows in the salt of Lake Mackay!)

In the first posting, while introducing the landscape, I featured some key trees that help define in it various places - Mulga, Desert Oak, Desert Paperbark, Ghost Gums and Desert Bloodwoods. I won't revisit them today, but there were other trees, mostly low-growing, which appeared from time to time. There were quite a few acacias, as there are pretty much anywhere in Australia, but most were shrubs which will have their moment next time, but in addition to the Mulga, a couple of acacia trees occurred fairly frequently, though generally growing alone. 

Black Gidgee Acacia pruinocarpa is a striking desert tree, whose distribution is centred on
the Great Sandy Desert.

The distinctive large leathery foliage of Black Gidgee.
Wirewood A. coriacea (often referred to confusingly as Desert Oak) has thin leathery phyllodes, and grows across the tropical inland.

A small clump of Wirewood growing on a spinifex plain.

Wirewood foliage and flowers; central desert people eat the seeds whole, and as flour.
Whitewood Atalaya hemiglauca, family Sapindaceae, is another widespread and very attractive dry country tree.
Whitewood is an excellent shade tree in country where shade is in short supply;
I remember some good camps in its shelter.
Lolly Bush Clerodendrum floribundum Family Verbenaceae is a small tree found right
across northern Australia, in wetter as well as arid zones.
Despite the name and the attractive-looking fruit, they are not edible.
Desert Poplar Codonocarpus cotonifolius Family Gyrostemonaceae is more familiar
in southern arid lands, though there are also outliers to the west of the Great Sandy.
In addition to the Desert Bloodwood, which is often found on the dunes, there are a couple of mallee species of eucalypt (low-growing and multi-stemmed, so technically really shrubs) growing, often in some profusion, on the plains.

Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) deserticola - ie 'desert dwelling' - is found scattered
across the more northern deserts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The distinctive fruit and leaves of E. deserticola. Like some other eucalypts, it retains its
juvenile leaves, which are opposite and clasp around the stem.
Red-bud Mallee Eucalyptus pachyphylla (definitely more a shrub than tree!), another
specialist of the central deserts, at its western limits in the Great Sandy.
Below its large and conspicuous fruit; you can still see traces of the bright red
that characterises its buds and confers its common name.

I've introduced the Proteaceous genus Hakea before in an earlier blog; a couple of species thrive in the arid sandiness of the central deserts.
Fork-leaved Corkwood Hakea divaricata, above and below.
Another central desert specialist.

Corkwood Hakea lorea, above and below.
The corkiness of the bark (not really the wood) is evident above.

Time now to look down, at some of the flowering herbs (or ground-covering shrubs, I'm not going to be too pedantic about it).
A parakeelya Calandrinia stagnensis Family Portulacaceae.
I'm almost sure of the species, but less sure of the name origin. The '-ensis' suffix indicates a place,
but the type locality is listed as 'Ross's waterhole, Macumba River', in northern South Australia,
which leaves me baffled. If you have an insight to this one I'd be interested.
Blue Pincushion Brunonia australis, the only member of the family Brunoniaceae (though some would now
lump it into Goodeniaceae). This pretty herb has an amazing distribution, from the forests of the south-east
and south-west, through woodlands to the central and western deserts.
Desert Pepperflower Diplopeltis stuartii Family Sapindaceae, above and below.
Technically a shrub, but really...
Interesting for a couple of reasons. It is one of the few colourfully-flowered members of the
family, many of which (like the hop-bushes, Dodonea)  are wind-pollinated.
It is also one of the few plants named for the doyen of desert explorers, John McDouall Stuart, who collected it.
There were a couple of species of Goodenia, only one of which I could name.
Goodenia centralis, as the name suggests, of the central (and western) deserts.

This Goodenia, above and below, I can't find in any of my books. Advice welcomed!

Desert Snow, or Snow Flakes Macgregoria racemigera Family Celastraceae somewhat surprisingly (formerly Stackhousiaceae) growing near the shores of the salty Lake Mackay. Thanks for this one Bevan (see below).

Again my thanks to Bevan (comments below) for solving this mystery.
It's one I'd never heard of, a Peplidium sp., family Phrymaceae (likewise!).

But it's probably best for my self-esteem to end with a couple that I am reasonably confident about!
Horse Mulla Mulla Ptilotus schwartzii Family Amaranthaceae.
Mulla mulla is the name of the group, which can form vast expanses of flowers at times, but
I can't shed any light on the significance of 'horse'.
Wilhelm Schwartz founded Hermansburg Mission, now Ntaria community, in central Australia.

A samphire, Tecticornia verrucosa. It is apparently a source of edible seeds prized by desert Aboriginal people.
And that will do for today, I think. When we return to the desert we'll look at some of the beautiful flowering shrubs but, as I mentioned earlier, we'll have a week's break first, to do something quite different.


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Bevan Buirchell said...


The Calandrenia stagnensis comes from the latin "stagnalis" pooler swamp so the name refers to growing in swampy areas I presume. The ground hugging plant with the lovely flowers is a genus called Peplidium. Im not sure what the plant above it is but a guess would be Macgregoria racemigera or Desert Snow. The Botany team collected many Goodenias, including the ones you presented, and we are waiting on the IDs to see if anything is new to science. Thanks for the lovely series on the DD trip. Cheers

Susan said...

First mystery plant -- Isotoma? maybe I. luticola? A guess based on the fact that the flowers look like Isotoma, and I. luticola occurs in the GSD.

It was great to read the explanation of the 'excavations' in the previous post, and I see you have an alternative species for the pyrgomorph. All good stuff.

Susan said...

The ID for the first mystery plant by Bevan Buirchell looks better (and he sounds considerably more expert on the subject than me :-)). I just looked at some pics of Macgregoria racemigera. I can't find a pic of Isotoma luticola. We must have been typing simultaneously.

Bevan Buirchell said...

I thought it was an Isotope at first glance as the flower shape is typical but most Isotopes that i know have blue petals, including I. luticola. Only one sighting of this plant in WA

Bevan Buirchell said...

Don't you love spell correction - it can't cope with biological names!!

Kath H said...

Thanks Ian. Another interesting blog. I was fascinated to see the Brunonia growing there! What a range of climates it can thrive in. And I liked the solution to the mystery salt lake holes you mentioned last time.

Flabmeister said...

Can you foreshadow the definition of "shrub" or would you prefer to leave that to the next epistle?

WRT to the explanation of the rings it is very interesting. Am I correct in inferring that as the projectile material is in a ring all the particles therein are similar in size?

Ian Fraser said...

Well, this is a wealth of information and helpful suggestions - thank you all! I'm cautiously going with the Macgregoria, not least because I know of Bevan's expertise in this area, but I confess that I too had thought of Isotoma Susan, but couldn't find a candidate. I should have thought of the Desert Snow, though I'm more used to seeing it covered in masses of flowers. I shall correct where appropriate now.
Yes, I liked the explanation of the rings too, not least because it would never have occurred to me. The particles were of similar size Martin, though I didn't do a very convincing survey.
Finally Bevan, that explanation of stagnalis occurred to me, but it's pretty unusual usage - '-ensis' usually goes on the end of a place name. I'd have expected it to be more like 'stagnalicola' - dwelling in a stagnant place. I'm sure you're right though.