Stop and smell the flowers
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of a trip to Australia's Outback is how green it can be! Many people are surprised to learn that there are over 416 species of native plants in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park alone. The Aboriginal people have used the plant life of Central Australia for thousands of years to supplement their diet of native game as well as for medicines, weapons, clothing and shelter.
As its world heritage listing indicates, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park ‘contains unique, rare or superlative natural phenomena, formations and features’.
Anangu have, for centuries, divided the flora in the Park into a number of categories: Punu (trees), Puti (shrubs), Tjulpuntjulpunpa (flowers) and Ukiri (grasses).
One of the most distinctive and impressive trees of the pila and tali habitats is the Kurkara. Like many plants in the Central Desert, the Kurkara has modified leaves to reduce water loss. Its needles are made up of thin striped segments, leaf stalks, linked by a ring of projections, each of which is a tiny leaf.
Desert Oaks are slow to mature and grow in deep sand in large numbers. Juveniles look like Christmas trees and when matured to an adult form, spread massive limbs when the roots meet the water table. It is the only member of its family in Central Australia and its cones are the biggest of its kind. Fire burns its foliage but usually does not kill the tree.
This tough shrub is the most common shrub in puti and probably the most common in all of Australia. It is well equipped to survive dry hot conditions. Like most acacias, it has leaves that aren't really leaves at all but flattened leaf stalks called phyllodes. These reduced leaves lose less water vapour when the plant breathes than more traditional leaves. They are also silvery to reflect the heat and hang vertically to minimise the sunlight falling on them.
Kalinypa Honey Grevillea "Sweetshops"
The spectacular flowers of grevilleas make them popular in Australia gardens. But in the Central Desert they have a more important role. The flowers of Desert and Honey Grevilleas are full of nectar, attracting a host of insects and honeyeater birds. Look for beads of nectar glistening on these flowers in the early morning before the day shift of sweet tooths have their fill.
Shrubs such as grevilleas and hakeas (corkwood trees) flower in the spring and winter and are known for their big bottlebrush heads. Kaliny-kalinypa (honey grevillea - Grevillea eriostachya) flowers are bright yellow and green. Colourful ground flowers are called tjulpuntjulpunpa. Daisies and other ground flowers bloom after rain and during the winter. Others such as the wattles bloom as spring approaches.
Spinifex "Spiky Donuts"
The spiny leaves of Tjanpi (Spinifex) are rolled into needles to conserve valuable moisture. Young plants are round. As a clump grows outwards the outer leaves take root. Eventually as the plant expands, the centre dies, producing rings. Old clumps become metres wide.
Tjanpi cools the sand for animals, provides food for grazing insects and mammals, and gives spiky protection. Your fingers or shins may have already told you how effective that protection is.
The prickly tjanpi (hard spinifex - Triodia basedowii) hummocks are prevalent throughout the Park. Their enormous root systems prevent desert sands shifting, spreading underground beyond the prickly clump and deep into the soil and forming an immense cone.
Going Green in the Outback
For a much more comprehensive look at the plant life in the area, make sure you visit the Visitors Centre in Ayers Rock Resort while you're on your trip. Join an Indigenous guide on an exploration around the Resort gardens at Desert Gardens Hotel and Sails in the Desert on the free Guided Garden Walks. Or pick up your pocket guide from the hotel reception for a self-guided walk around these gardens.