Spread over a huge area of outback Australia, spinifex is generally one of the most maligned plants found anywhere around the country.Some of Australia’s earliest European pioneers were the first to record their spinifex grass experiences in quite unflattering terms.
Explorer Peter Egerton Warburton described spinifex in his 1872 journal:
“It is quite uneatable, even for camels, who are compelled to thread their way painfully through its mazes, never planting a foot on the stools, if they can possibly avoid it… It is one of the most cheerless objects that an explorer can meet, and it is perhaps unnecessary to say that the country it loves to dwell in is utterly useless for pastoral purposes.”
In 1874 and 1875, another explorer, John Forrest, wrote: “As far as can be seen in every direction stretch plains of apparent ripe corn, which is the grass or stalk growing out of spinifex tufts. The grass is very disagreeable to walk through and often makes the horses’ legs bleed. When dry, horses will not and cannot eat it; the grass or stalk is entirely dry and without nutriment. Day after day, week after week, month after month we fought against it, and in this fearful country, whichever way we turned, all was the same.”
Thousands of years before early European exploration of Australia, Aborigines found spinifex (‘tjandi’) to be a valuable commodity. Traditional Aboriginal women, for instance, ground the seeds from the spinifex plant into flour, using it to make dough that would be baked into a type of bush bread.
Another important use was as a dark, bitumen-like glue known as ‘kiti’, which was used to fix stone blades to wooden tools (used for cutting and hunting) as well as securing sharpened spearheads to long spear shafts. This sticky substance, which is obtained by beating the resin from the spinifex stems and then melting the particles together over a fire was, in fact, a useful ‘bush glue’ to Aborigines for a variety of different purposes in their day to day life – an ancient equivalent of today’s super glue.
In more modern times, this glue has proven valuable to many bush travellers, who have used it to repair holes in fuel tanks, jerry cans, water buckets and numerous other jobs in the bush where a strong binding agent is needed.
HOME TO INSECTS & ANIMALS
Strange as it may seem, spinifex also has quite a few friends in the insect and animal kingdoms.
This spiky, seemingly useless plant which is, in fact, one of the world’s hardiest grasses, is a welcome refuge for a number of small critters in the outback. Lizards and snakes shelter amongst its sharp spikes and the small spinifex-hopping mice build their tunnels a metre or more beneath the plants. The long, needle-like leaves are also home to grasshoppers, beetles and other insects that use them to hide and camouflage themselves. Even the hardy emu is often seen nesting and foraging amongst prickly spinifex clumps.
Termites, on the other hand, feed on the old stems and leaves of spinifex, chewing it into fine mulch and depositing it deep within their termite mounds. In areas where these spinifex termites are active, their long, thin tunnels can be seen running across the surface of the ground between their mounds and nearby spinifex clumps. The action of the termites also serves to return valuable nutrients to the soil.
And yet another strange partnership has been set-up between spinifex and one of our native birds – the spinifex pigeon, which also uses this prickly plant as a home and safe haven. With apparent impunity to its spikes, the spinifex pigeon is seen to both fly and hop in and out of the clumps with ease – just another peculiarity to be found in our Australian bush.
When walking or climbing in spinifex country, wear solid boots and, if possible, protective covering around your legs to stop the prickly spikes scratching and piercing your skin.
Take care not to fall into a spinifex clump – I can attest to this being quite a painful experience, both initially and then over the next few days, when over 25 spiky prickles were pulled out of my legs and hands as each of the virtually clear spinifex prickles (the spike tips break off in the skin like splinters) became itchy, sore and very irritating.
When driving through spinifex (or long grass), caravanners should take the time to regularly check for build-ups of the grass under the vehicle. The hot exhaust pipe can quickly ignite such tinder-dry spinifex and before you know it, you might have a serious vehicle fire to contend with.