The Great Victoria, Great Sandy, Gibson and Simpson deserts are all part of the vast, arid landscape that dominates central and southwestern Australia. In this hot, harsh, windblown desert environment, rain comes rarely. Many of Australian desert plants are striking for their capacity to survive, their unusual beauty or famous in aboriginal lore as being useful for medicinal and other purposes.
The boab tree (Adansonia gregorii), also called the bottle tree, grows in the rocky, arid parts of western Australia. Branches sprout from the top of its thick trunk that stores water and can grow up to 60 feet wide. Its roots spread as much as 30 feet to either side. The boab drops its leaves during the dry season, springing to life when rains come. Boabs are grown commercially for their roots, said to have the crunch of chestnuts and the sweetness of carrots. Their leaves are eaten in salads; the kidney-shaped seeds of their brown nuts are also eaten.
The bush tomato (Solanum centrate), also called the Australian desert raisin, is a small, thorny bush that can lie dormant for years if there is no rain. Its small, yellow berries look like raisins when they dry on the bush. They have a strong, pungent taste.
Cabbage palms (Livistona mariae) grow only in desert areas of central Australia. They have thin trunks that can reach 90 feet high; their short branches of green leaves sprout from the top. Aborigines eat the leaves; European settlers wove leaf strips into hats.
The desert oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) is a deciduous tree. It has soft, feathery leaves on a large bloom of branches. The leaves drop when there is no water. It grows to be 30 to 60 feet tall and is most often found in swales between sand dunes.
Desert Grass Tree
The desert grass tree (Xanthorrhoea thorntonii) lives in scattered populations on shallow desert sand and can live up to 600 years. Aborigines call it balga grass, or black boy, because after a fire its blackened stalks look like slender human figures.
Australia’s deserts host more than 900 species of wattle, members of the acacia family that produces white, cream or yellow flowers shaped like balls or rods. The seeds of the elegant wattle (Acacia victoriae) are collected as a wild food, and their nutty flavor is good for a kind of coffee.
Formerly Eucalyptus papuana and reclassified as Corymbia aparrerinja, this evergreen is known as the ghost gum because of its smooth white bark. It lives in red sand flats, dry creek beds and rocky slopes. Aborigines use its bark to treat colds, and it is prominent in their myths and stories.
MacDonnell Ranges Cycad
The MacDonnell Ranges cycad (Macrozamia macdonnelli) grows in rocky ranges and gorges in central Australia. Their short, fat bodies and leaves make them look like palms, but they are not.
Porcupine grass (Triodia sp.) has roots that go up to 30 feet deep. To prevent loss of water, its hard, waxy leaves roll into tight vertical spikes in the sun.
Australian saltbrush (Atriplex semibaccata) is low-growing, silvery-gray succulent that is able to withstand extreme drought. Its fat leaves store water and excrete salt. It forms a foot-tall dense mat that spread six feet or more.
Sturt's Desert Pea
Sturt's desert pea (Clianthus formosus) has striking, blood-red flowers that grow from a small pea-shaped black ball. It creeps slowly along the ground in central and northwestern Australian deserts
Triodia is a grass popularly called spiniflex in Australia. True spiniflex grow in coastal areas. It is a perennial with thin, awl-shaped-leaves; it forms thick balls and grows into hummocks. Aboriginals make cakes out of ground seeds and use its resins to help make spears.