Classic Outback #3

It’s said that the one thing which has prevented Australian deserts from becoming bare expanses of shifting sand as in the Sahara is spinifex.

Strangely, what is almost always referred to as “spinifex” is not true spinifex, but triodia grass, a plant which thrives in poor, arid soil, has long pointed “leaves”, and  roots which go down about three metres.

We’ll follow the crowd, and refer to it as “spinifex”.


Some 22% of Australia is dominated by spinifex. Aborigines have used it to make seed cakes, and for building shelters and fish traps. They could extract a resin from it which was used in spear making. Because it is highly flammable, it can be used for getting a fire started, and the black smoke it creates is good for making smoke signals.

Spinifex is a tussock-forming plant. The centre of a large tussock will often die out, leaving a ring formation.

Driving through spinifex is a hazardous activity. The long thin “leaves” get caught in areas under the vehicle like the sump guard, and when there’s enough of them packed together, their flammable nature together with a bit of grease and hot metal cause spontaneous combustion, and suddenly you realise you have a fire under your car. Even if you have an extinguisher, getting under the car with it is not recommended. A better strategy is to grab any vital possessions from the car (such as a sat phone or an emergency beacon), get well clear, and start thinking about the good times you had in that car before it got burnt out. A much better alternative is to make regular checks under the vehicle and remove any spinifex that’s been caught there.



About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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7 Responses to Classic Outback #3

  1. Sue Emeleus says:

    I love the solution. Love from Sue

  2. Mandy says:

    My most vivid memories of spinifex are the spikes or prickles that embed themselves into any exposed flesh.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Indeed, they’re sharp, and I believe that if the imbedded bit breaks off from the rest, it can easily cause an infection. Gosh you rural people are tough!

      • Mandy says:

        It never caused me an infection but there was a bizarre satisfaction in watching the little lumps push out of the skin about a week later!

  3. Lavinia Ross says:

    Interesting species of grass. 3 meters of roots – sounds like a good survivor in your climate. Does the resin in the leaves help prevent against desiccation? I am still impressed with the rich reddish-orange color of the soil there.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      The leaves certainly contain silica — which I suppose is to be expected when the plant is growing in sand. I don’t know what the resin consists of, but my guess is it’s at least partly silicon compounds, and that that gives the plants some resistance to desiccation.

      By the way, I forgot to mention that spinifex is dependant on fire to cause seeds to germinate, and so the grass fires which are not uncommon in the Outback after rain has encouraged the growth of grasses, are necessary to keep spinifex healthy.

      Regarding the red soil: this is due to the presence of iron compounds.

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