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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.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Ghost Gums; spirits of the desert (updated from an earlier post)

I am away for a bit over two weeks and, instead of preparing new posts for that time, I have opted to update a couple of earlier posts, which are more than three and a half years old and which you may well have missed. I hope you find them interesting. This one first appeared in an earlier form on 7 January 2014. I'll be back 'live' on Friday 18 August.

Of all the things that thrill me when I go to central Australia - and there are many - the first sight of a Ghost Gum is particularly special. Like many Australians - I'd like to think most of us, but that may be optimistic - I knew of Ghost Gums before I saw them, courtesy of the truly great Arrernte Australian artist Albert Namatjira. (An image search on your favourite search engine for 'Namatjira ghost gum' will give you lots of examples.)

Their superbly white trunks, powdery to the touch, against red cliffs or vast dry plains catch at the breath and the heart every time. They are found across a huge expanse of dry Australia; various of the photos that follow were taken across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland at localities up to 1500 kilometres apart, and even that is not the full extent of their range.

Roadside Ghost Gum, west of Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Coming from the south-east, this is one of the first examples you'll encounter.
For much of my life I knew them as Eucalyptus papuana, but two things happened then. Firstly, the respected botanist Lawrie Johnson of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney grasped a very large and forbidding nettle indeed when he tackled the problem of what to do about Eucalyptus. The problem, in a gum-nut shell, is that the differences between Eucalyptus and Angophora are no greater than between the various sub-groups of Eucalyptus. Logic demanded either incorporating Angophora into Eucalyptus, or splitting Eucalyptus; Lawrie boldly chose the latter. Before his sad death from cancer in 1997 he had got as far as separating out the bloodwoods, spotted gums and ghost gums as Corymbia; they remain in most books now as the only other non-Eucalyptus eucalypt. This is an interesting enough subject in itself, but I'll leave it at that for now.

The other development was the realisation that 'Eucalyptus/Corymbia papuana' in fact comprised several closely related species. The species was based on a specimen described by Ferdinand von Mueller from New Guinea; as now recognised that species is limited to New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, so the others needed their own names. The central Australian one, our subject today, growing cross the harsh central deserts from eastern Western Australia to central Queensland, was delightfully called Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) aparrerinja, that being a name used by the central desert peoples.
Ghost Gums at Boodjamulla (formerly Lawn Hill) NP, north-west Queenland.
I think these are aparrerinja, but they could be another of the former papuana complex, such as bella.

But in this lovely indigenous-based name lies a curious tale, for which I am very grateful to David Nash, a highly regarded Australian National University authority on Northern Territory languages and I can do no better than quote him. "How aparrerinja came to be applied is a bit mysterious. It was recorded as the word for 'Ghost Gum' only by Basedow (in 1925 near Gosse's Bluff). In his orthography nj is the palatal nasal. It is not understood why he did not record the common Arrernte 'Ghost Gum' word ilwempe, and why instead his term is built on the 'River Red Gum' term apere (in modern orthography), meaning 'similar to apere'. Note that the River Red Gum is commonly considered in central Australia to be the most similar tree to the Ghost Gum." It doesn't seem that this mystery is soluble, but it's good to know the questions at least.

Uses recorded by indigenous people (which may include other closely related Ghost Gums) include its value as a very good firewood, resistant even to rain; gum was used further north as a leech repellant, and more generally as antiseptic and topical relief for burns; bark infusions were drunk to assist in fighting chest infections, and to bathe sore eyes.

You're most likely to first encounter Ghost Gums on the plains, like the south-west Queensland outlier featured above. I hope you don't think I've gone overboard with the photos - personally I don't think there is any such thing as too many Ghost Gums!
Ghost Gums towering over the plains near Simpsons Gap, MacDonnell Ranges.
Ghost Gums along the Gary Junction Road, southern edge of the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
Much denser Ghost Gum woodland, deeper into the Great Sandy, well to the north of the previous photo.
This is at the base of a large red sand dune, and it is possible that sub-surface water has accumulated here.
Old Ghost Gum, Telegraph Station reserve, Alice Springs.
Another magnificent old specimen, Simpsons Gap, central Australia.

Ghost Gums by the Plenty Highway, far eastern Northern Territory.
Ghost Gum estimated to be 300 years old (by the Northern Territory Parks Service)
near Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges.
They can be found at the edge of the ranges, on the break of slope or on gentle stony hillsides.
Ghost Gums and spinifex (Triodia sp.), East MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia.

Ghost Gum alongside the ridge, Telegraph Station reserve, Alice Springs.
However to my eye, it is among the rocks, in the gorges and on the cliffs of the ranges that Ghost Gums are at their most dramatic and striking. It is remarkable where such big trees can gain a toehold, and the white trunk against red rock and bluest sky is just stunning.
Above and below, Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Ranges.


Kings Canyon Rim Walk, George Gill Range, central Australia.
Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges.
In the film Man From Snowy River, the famous ride down the precipitous mountain was purportedly filmed by sticking smallish trees into the ground at an angle, then tilting the footage to make it look steep. No such trickery is necessary for this amazing tree, though it takes a while to persuade the eyes what they are seeing!
I have even seen these glorious survivors eking out a living on stony substrate too hostile to even permit their roots to grow beneath the surface!

Tenacious Ghost Gum, surely much older than its stature suggests, growing on
an unwelcoming stony plateau at Bladensburg NP, central Queensland.

Another lovely tree surviving on the surface of sheet rock on the rim of Kings Canyon,
central Australia.
 As you will have divined, I love Ghost Gums; please go and see for yourself one day.

NEXT POSTING FRIDAY
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I shall be away until 15 August and will not be able to reply to any comments
you make until after that.
I shall certainly do so however, so please check back.

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