Plants
AUSTRALIAN Desert Shrublands & Grasslands

The drier habitats of Australia have a surprising diversity of beautiful flowers... 

Order Poales

Family Poaceae

Triodia spp. 'Spinifex'

The most important and obvious group of plants in the arid areas of Australia are the Spinifex grasses. They are a different genus from the 'true' Spinifex of the coastal areas.  There are over 65 species, many teased out only recently. They are all endemic to Australia. Aboriginal uses of these widespread plants included burning for long range black smoke signals, and the resin was used as glue for spear-making. Recent research has suggested certain species of spinifex can be made into nanofibres used to strengthen rubber products, including condoms. Ouch.

(Millstream, WA)

As the spinifex grass clump grows out, the older inside of the plant may die, leaving a distinctive 'donut ring' shape.

Order Curcubitales

Family Curcurbitaceae

Citrullus colocynthis, 'Colocynthis', 'Bitter Cucumber' (Nalland Station). Introduced from northern Africa & Mediterranean.

Order Fabales

Sub/Family Fabaceae

Swainsona spp.

There are about 85 species in this genus. All these except for one species, are endemic to Australia. Most are prostate, crawling along the ground with opposite leaves. They include some of the brighter and erect pea flowers in the Australian desert. Some species produce a compound called swainsonine, a phytotoxin that causes disease in cattle when ingested. This is also found in a few other plants in the Americas that called 'locoweed'. The resulting sickness is referred to as swainsonine toxicosis, or 'peastruck' in Australia.

Swainsona formosa, 'Sturt's Desert Pea'. Probably the most famous flower of the Australian desert. The flowers are distinctive and unusual; they are glossy blood-red in colour and their shape is unlike any other member of it's genus, or indeed any other pea. They were first noticed by western science when collected by William Dampier on Rosemary Island in the Dampier Archipelago in 1699. The common name comes from explorer Charles Sturt who in 1844 recorded seeing many in flower across inland Australia.

swainsona-villosa-south-co0ber-pedy(Coober Pedy, South Australia)

Swainsona villosa. Flowers in winter. Can produce large masses of erect purple or pink flowers.

Family/Subfamily Mimosaceae

Acacia spp. 'Wattles'

The biggest genus of plants in Australia. In the areas many species of Acacia are often the dominant and most common trees. In the tropical species, what tends to look like the leaves are actually flattened stems called phyllodes, which effectively act like leaves, being photosynthetic. The flowers are mostly yellow, either in balls or spikes. The fruits are brown pods with small black seeds, often with a small yellow or orange fleshy connection.

(Pilbara, W.A.)

Acacia tetragonophylla, 'Dead Finish', 'Kurara'. The phyllodes are long and needle like, running along the branches, and can be quite prickly. Widespread and common in arid habitats across inland Australia, particularly in the west. 

Order Caryophyllales

Family Montiaceae

(Kings Park, Western Australia)

Calandrinia polyandra, 'Parakeelya'. Succulent crawling herb. Found in arid areas in most Australian states.

Family Amaranthaceae

Ptilotus spp. 'Longtails'

ptilotus-field(South Australia)

This genus contains some 120 species. They are herbs or small shrubs. They usually have pink flowers that hang down like a tail, and thus are often nicknamed pussycat, lambs or fox 'tails'. One of the Aboriginal names that has stuck is 'Mulla Mullaa'. They are a common and diverse group within arid habitats across Australia, and are endemic to that continent. They are most diverse in the Pilbara region.

(Pilbara, W.A.)

Ptilotus obovatus, 'Cotton Bush', 'Smoke Bush', 'Silver Mulla Mulla'. Herb. Light dull green leaves that can be hairy. Heads of pink flowers. Found across arid parts of Australia.

ptilotus-polystachyus-(South Australia)

Ptilotus polystachyus, 'Prince of Wales Feather'. Small shrub. Hairy long narrow leaves. Tall erect flowers, white and green, sometimes pinkish-red. Widespread across arid parts of Australia.

ptilotus-nobilis-cober-pedy(south of Coober Pedy, South Australia)

Ptilotus nobilis, 'Tall/Red/Yellow Mulla Mulla', 'Broad Foxtail'. Herb. Fluffy white, yellow or pink flowers. Very widespread, found across drier parts of Australia. Popularly grown in gardens, where it has many cultivars of different colours and thus different common names.

Tecticornia sp. 'Samphires'

Except for one species, the 'Samphires' are found only in Australia. They are small shrubs. Their leaves and stems have a jointed segmented appearance and are fleshy. These plants are found in and adapted to high salt situations, such as the edge of mangroves, mudflats, saline and dry lakes, and deserts.

(Lake King, Western Australia)

Tecticornia sp. 'Samphire'.

Family Aizoaceae

There are some 1800 species in this family. Many have succulent leaves. They are common in arid environments, and most diverse in southern Africa.

gunniopsis-zygophylloides-bush-coober-pedy-square(Just south of Coober Pedy, S.A)
gunniopsis-zygophylloides-flowers-south-coober-pedy-square(Just south of Coober Pedy, S.A)

Gunniopsis zygophylloides, 'Twin leaf Pigface'. Small shrub. Yellow flowers. It is only found in arid rocky ranges in northern South Australia and southern Northern Territory.

Order Lamiales

Family Scrophulariaceae

Eremophila sp. 'Emu Bushes', 'Poverty Bushes'

The flowers of some Eremophilas have colourful petals to attract pollinators, which then droop, fade and then fall off, to reveal a different but equally colourful set of sepals to attract seed dispersers...  


Eremophila cuneifoli, 'Pinyuru', 'Royal Poverty Bush'. Shrub with wedge-shaped leaves, pink sepals and purple flowers. Endemic to northern Western Australia, centred around the Pilbara.

(South of Coober Pedy)
(South Australia)

Eremophila rotundiflora, 'Grey Emu Bush'.  Shrub. Small grey-green flowers mostly clustered towards end of branches. There are usually many hairs, including inside the flowers. Pink tp purple flowers. Grows in arid stony soils. Endemic to Australia, mostly found in South Australia. 

(south of Coober Pedy)

Eremophila glabra, 'Tar Bush'. Shrub, sometimes grows prostate. Red tubular flowers. There are many different looking varieties of this species, which apparently makes it a popular garden plant. Found in arid areas across all mainland states of Australia. 

Order Asteraceae

Family Goodeniaceae

This family contains about 200 species. While a few species extend into south-east Asia, most are found and are endemic to the arid habitats of the mainland states of Australia.

goodenia-cycloptera-SA(South Australia)

Goodenia cylcoptera. Small, low ground-level shrub. Many leaves have a way or toothed edge. Yellow flowers. Found in arid habitats of most mainland states of Australia. Endemic to Australia.

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