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.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Great Sandy Desert: #4, shrubs

As promised, herewith the last instalment in a series of postings on my recent serendipitous visit to the remote and beautiful Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. It started here; you can work forward from there if you feel so inclined. 

I am ending with some of the flowering shrubs - and there were a surprising number, after the relatively recent rains. Inevitably there were a few I don't know, and probably a couple (hopefully no more!) that I've misinterpreted. As ever any help and suggestions will be very warmly welcomed and acknowledged. 

Rather than attempt a commentary - I think I've said most of that in earlier posts on the desert - this post is really going to comprise a series (a fairly long series, I should warn) of annotated photos. Many of the plants are too unfamiliar to have been allocated common names. 

There were a lot of acacias; I'll start with just some of them.
Acacia acradenia, an uncommon wattle scattered across the northern deserts.
Grey-whorled Wattle Acacia adoxa, a lovely little wattle from the north-west of Australia,
finding its south-eastern limits in the Great Sandy Desert. It was named as recently as 1972 by eminent
Australian Acacia botanist Leslie Pedley who was somewhat dismissive of it - adoxa means
ignoble or disreputable! Seems a little harsh.
Acacia chippendalei, scattered in the northern central deserts.
Named for George Chippendale, a great authority on Northern Territory flora
and author of the eucalypt volume of the Flora of Australia.
He was also a gentle and delightful man who I am grateful for having known.

Waxy Wattle Acacia dictyophleba, an attractive species widespread in the northern deserts.

Hill's Tabletop Wattle Acacia hilliana, a low-growing species again found across the northern deserts.
Not so many plants are named for an entomologist, but Gerald Hill was obviously something of a broader
naturalist as well, as he had the perspicacity to collect the type specimen.

Acacia stipuligera in late evening light.
I think this one is Sandhill Wattle Acacia ligulata, which I know from further south.
Any thoughts?
A couple of heavily-flowering shrubs from the family Myrtaceae periodically brightened up the desert all along our route.
Desert Heath Myrtle Aluta (formerly Thrytomene) maisonnevei is restricted to the
depths of the western deserts.
A starflower Calytrix sp., above and below. It was a star of the flowering shrubs, shining in the desert distances.
A couple of pea shrubs were also conspicuous.

The remarkable Upside-down Plant Leptosema chambersi, not least for being a bird-pollinated plant
with the flowers at ground level, much more characteristic of a mammal-pollinated one.
It was named by Ferdinand von Mueller for pastoralist James Chambers who financed John McDouall Stuart's
expedition which collected the type specimen.
Every one of the numerous Upside-down Plants we saw was surrounded by bird footprints, but sadly
we never managed to see the birds, which I assume were either (or both) honeyeaters or woodswallows.

Green Birdflower Crotolaria cunninghamii, above and below.
This remarkable pea nearly always grows on red sand dunes.
It was named to commemorate the great early 19th century botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham.

Poison Sage Isotropis atropurpurea is a rather more conventional pea, scattered in apparently discrete
populations across the western deserts. Related species are toxic by virtue of having sodium fluoracetate
('1080' when it appears in commercial pest poisons) in their foliage, but it seems that this species
has another, hitherto so far unidentified, chemical.
A closely-related family is Caesalpinaceae - in fact the current botanical taxonomic approach of lumping everything with relatedness into the same genus or family would include them, and the acacias, into one vast family with the peas, but it's hard to see how this helps us understand the more nuanced relationships.
Senna (formerly Cassia) artemisioides ssp. helmsii.This is a near-ubiquitous genus in the arid lands; the bewildering range of apparently quite dissimilar
subspecies is notorious.
Butterfly Bush Petalostylis cassioides, in the same family but much less abundant.
One of my favourite plant groups, not least because of their fondness for the deep deserts (as well as semi-arid habitats) is the eremophilas or emu-bushes; I've made a couple of recent errors in identifying these so I'm a bit nervous about offering names for them, but I'm sure I'll hear if I'm wrong! I won't talk too much about the group, there's quite a bit of information in the link above.
Wilcox Bush Eremophila forrestii.

Crimson Turkey Bush Eremophila latrobei, found right across inland Australia.

Wills' Desert Fuchsia Eremophila willsii, mostly a plant of the more southern deserts.
Named for William Wills, second in command of the infamously doomed Burke and Wills expedition;
not the place here for a broad discussion, but they died primarily because of their failure to respect or try to
understand the local inhabitants who were offering them essential survival advice.
Last time I introduced a couple of ground-hugging species of Goodenia, but there were a couple of larger species of Goodeniaceae present too.
Spiny Fanflower Scaevola spinescens, common across inland Australia.
Scaevola basedowii, for the noted anthropologist Herbert Basedow who collected it at the evidently
misnamed Mount Unapproachable in outback South Australia in 1926.
A most attractive member of the family which I take to be a Vellea, but I can't do better than that.
I would guess that the curious stem-clasping leaves help to prevent pollen-thieving ants from accessing the flowers.
One of the most dramatic of desert flowers, the large and prolifically flowering Desert Grevillea G. eriostachya, was just coming into flower as we were leaving. I was sorry about this, not least because it is an irresistible magnet to nectar-seeking birds.

Not many plants grow on the clay pans, but the seaheaths Frankenia (family Frankeniaceae) are exceptions.
Frankenia cinerea, above and below.
The family Lamiaceae, native mintbushes and many European-derived garden herbs, often have quite conspicuous flowers, but one widespread shrub we found in the desert does not - it is nonetheless attractive for that.
Dicrastylis exsuccosa, above and below.
This is not a familiar genus, including to me, but it contains over 30 species, mostly
from inland Western Australia.

I'll conclude with a few more species which were the only ones of their genera we saw. Two of them are superficially quite similar.

Common Firebush Keraudrenia integrifolia Family Sterculiaceae.
Named for its vigorous regeneration following fire.

Halgania solanacea, Family Boraginaceae; its species name reflects its similarity to yet another desert
genus, Solanum, better known as also being the tomato genus.
And while we're on the subject, here's one named for its perceived similarity to Solanum leaves!
Hibiscus solanifolius, a plant of very limited distribution.
And finally, the quiz - to which I don't know the answers! Or at least I didn't until Bevan Buirchell has again kindly come to the rescue with genera; armed with that I feel moderately confident in suggesting the species as below. Again my grateful thanks for your generosity and expertise Beavan.
Streptoglossa decurrens or odora; these two dryland daisy species are very hard to distinguish.

Indigofera monophylla, a desert member of a widespread Australian pea shrub species.
And that's it for our exploration of this remote and little-known part of the world (though I think that after the Desert Discovery expedition of which I was a very small part we know it a bit better now). I don't imagine I'll ever get back there - access for an individual is not easy, and there's a lot more of the world to see. But I am very glad and feel very privileged to have been there.


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Unknown said...

I would hazard a guess at Streptoglossa and Indigofera as the genera for the last two photos - don't know the species names

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks again Bevan, I knew I could rely on you! I've followed up on your suggestions and think I may have identified the species.