Landscape of Southern Australia from Mallee and Mulga.

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Mallee - flowers

Mallee and Mulga Two iconic and typically inland Australian plant communities

-By Sandy Scott

When driving across southern Australia between western NSW , north west Victoria, South Australia and eastern parts of Western Australia travellers regularly pass through open country and roadsides lined with mallee, and when they penetrate a little further north into more arid country they encounter mulga. Many people know little about these symbolic Australian plants so let’s hope the following will help to rectify this for when you next tour south Australia or Western Australia.

Mallee

Of all plant groups the Eucalypt best identifies Australian vegetation.  However there over 700 species in this group and based on their flower and fruit structure taxonomists have recognised three distinct genera within this group Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora. The question now is how do we distinguish between the 100s of species of Eucalyptus and which ones are mallees?

We know many Eucalypts are trees, that some are small, less than 10m while some reach over 60m. When we look at their bark, we see some are smooth barked (gums), some have fibrous bark (stringy barks) and others have a very tough resin-impregnated bark (iron barks). Sometimes the rougher barks only occurs around the base of the tree, in others it covers half the trunk with the upper half smooth (boxes). A close look at the characteristics of the maturing buds and the resulting fruits (gum nuts) also enables us to distinguish one species from another.

Typically, in woodland communities we find tree species that have a very short bole (trunk) and many branches that make up the canopy.  In forests however we typically find species that have long boles and a proportionally shorter canopy.

And when we come to the form of growth in mallee we find multiple stems growing from a single root stock called a lignotuber.

Mallee

Typical form of a mallee, Eucalyptus stricta. (From Wikipedia)

Given that mallee species generally grow within the 2m to 9m range they are classified as shrubs or small trees and grow in communities making up a woodland or a shrubland. There are some 27 species of Eucalyptus that have the mallee type characteristics and six or seven of these are common in natural communities across southern Australia.

Most of the areas where mallee can be found is flat land covered with ancient dunes; they have low fertility sandy soil with a winter rainfall distribution. These areas are semi-arid and in Victoria for example the northern mallee averages about 250mm rainfall per annum and in the south about 370mm.

While the name mallee applies to single plants or a community of these plants, the name Mallee also applies to country regional areas of north western Victoria and eastern South Australia dominated by this vegetation.

Regions in NW Victoria and eastern South Australia. From Wikipedia.

The lignotuber of the mallee increases in size as the plants age. Following fire or a prolonged drought that may kill the leaves and branches, new shoots grow up from the lignotuber to become the new photosynthesising parts of the plant. A similar regrowth after severe stress in many other Eucalypts species follows a parallel response when epicormic buds (buds from just below the bark) emerge and begin the post-stress regeneration of green shoots.

In mallee areas where pioneer farmers cleared land for cropping the regrowth from lignotubers caused troubles during cultivation and sowing with the new mallee shoots often becoming mixed with the ripening grain crops.

A development in South Australia to deal with the roots and lignotubers was the invention of the stump-jump plough in 1876 -a model that was then followed by a series of improvements. Along with rolling and burning and the use of the stump-jump plough farmers were able to reduce their problems while tilling the soil and harvesting crops.

Mallee root roller

Mallee roller at work in the Swan Hill area (1916, H99.128/47. From Wikipedia)

A great problem with the use of these mallee lands for cropping has arisen through the exposure of the sandy soil to wind erosion particularly between crops. One estimate suggests that 75% of South Australian mallee country has been cleared for cropping and grazing with 65% in Victoria. Not only is the soil blown up against fences in bare areas, but strong winds lift the sand so producing a dust storms that can have widespread effects.

For years mallee roots (lignotubers) that were grubbed out of the soil were favoured firewood with hot long-burning qualities. To prevent clearing for the sake of recovering this fuel, the sale of mallee roots was made illegal.

Mulga

Not only does mulga appear in A.B.(Banjo) Patterson’s poem ‘Mulga Bills Bicycle’, but is the name of an iconic widespread small tree across much of inland Australia.

Like mallee that belongs in the very large Eucalypt genus of plants, Mulga is a one of over 900 Acaciaspecies commonly known as wattles.  Its scientific name Acacia aneura and the species name aneurarefers to the fact that there are no visible nerves (midrib) in the ‘leaves’.  For the non-botanist many wattles, including mulga, have phyllodes that photosynthesise like a leaf blade but develop from the modified leaf stem.

Mature Mallee

A mulga Tree. (Photo by Mark Marathon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons source of   .wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27964434)

While much of the diversity in mallees is related to differences between distinct species, diversity in mulga (Acacia aneura) arises from having a number of varieties or very closely related species that form a complex recognised as mulga. Some members of the species complex may only grow to 3m high while another may grow to 15 m. Some varieties have multiple stems while others have one main stem. In shape, some are rounded but others in the complex are quite diffuse in outline. While most mulga types are erect with the phyllodes literally pointing upwards, some are pendulous.  The size and shape of the phyllodes and pods also varies between mulga varieties. The origin of this diversity within a species has attracted many studies and hybridisation, a cross resulting from genetically unlike types within a species, is commonly cited as its cause.

Mulga is generally found in more arid locations than mallee with rainfall within the 200mm to 250mm annual average and occasionally in places up to 400mm pa across central southern Australia. One of the species adaptations in such dry environments relates to the positioning of the phyllodes and their ability to channel rainwater to the stem so that rainfall is concentrated at the base of the trunk to ‘irrigate’ the roots below.

 

A flowering mulga showing the upright phyllodes.

(By Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6164946)

It is suggested that mulga dominates the natural vegetation over about 20% of Australia. The map indicates that while mallee dominates in semi-arid areas, mulga is found in arid areas of Australia to its north. It is found in all states but Victoria and Tasmania.

Mallee distribution v v v and mulga distribution . . .in Australia

Mulga grows in a wide range of habitats from floodplains to stony plateaus but is most commonly found on undulating plains with strips of low hills country. Undisturbed mulga is a long-lived plant but it will die out following severe droughts or fire. Mulga may form part of the diet for sheep grazing as browsers under rangeland conditions.  However, over grazing such as occurred during rabbit plagues can kill off regenerating young mulga saplings.

Many of the plant parts of mulga were utilised in Aboriginal culture. The seeds were harvested and eaten after being roasted and ground into a paste. Mulga  wood was widely used as digging sticks, for wooden weapons like shields and throwing sticks, and as clapstrick percussion instruments.

Small group tours where you can see Mallee and Mulga.

Odyssey Traveller visits the Mallee regions of Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia.  These small group tour of Australia and its regions such as the Eyre peninsula, Yorke peninsula, the Murray river region are designed to make you re-think the way you understand Australia , our tour finds cultural and geographical continuities across state lines, epitomised by the idea of a ‘mallee country’ found across Australia . These Australian group tours for example in Southern Australia get away from the major centres – Melbourne , Sydney , Perth, and Adelaide – and discovers some of the remote corners of this fascinating country. We hope after reading this article and others about Australia, you will be able to see the semi-arid mallee country through new eyes, imagining how Aboriginal Australians lived and built community in these not-so-desolate lands.

Mallee

The Australian tour of World heritage sites in the Southern Australia states begins in Adelaide, from which we head to the historic shipping town of Port Fairy, Victoria . We then head to the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape , a fascinating example of indigenous aquaculture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then skirting around the Grampians to the Naracoorte Caves Park, another UNESCO site, which is home to fossils of ancient megafauna – Australian wildlife on a giant scale. At yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, we visit the Willandra Lakes, where geologist Jim Bowler found the ancient remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady , 42,000 years after their burials to study and learn about the not only about the Archeaology but also the native wildlife in the desert.

From here, our tour heads to the Murray River town of Mildura, deep in Mallee country, where we enjoy a river cruise, before heading to the outback capital of Broken Hill . From Broken Hill , we then head back into South Australia , visiting the railway town of Peterborough and explore the mining town of Burra with a local tour guide.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our other outback Australia tours, which include visits to the important cultural site of Wilpena Pound on our tour of the FlindersRanges ; to ancient rock art in the Kimberley, Western Australia , and to the Brewarrina Fish Traps , on our tour of outback Queensland .

The Mallee region is also visited on our tour of Western Australia wildflowers , where we see the endemic flora of Western Australia on a tour that takes us from Perth to Esperance , passing through the Stirling Ranges National Park and the Margaret River wine country.

Every Odyssey guided small group tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. These small group Australia tours are typically limited to 12 travellers with a tour guide. Our guided tour of Australia would not be considered the typical tourism Australia holidayBlue Mountains, Uluru , the Great Barrier Reef , and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island . Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path, with like minded people and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways on every New Zealand and Australia tour .

On our small group trip to Adelaide , we enjoy wine tastings on a day tour through the Barossa Valley , uncover the Arts and Crafts heritage of the Adelaide Hills, and visit the spectacular scenery of Kangaroo Island . Our Australian outbacktour , Broken Hill to Broken Hill , takes you through some of the most remote areas of Central Australia , where Queensland , South Australia , and the Northern Territory meet. To tour South Australia and further understand South Australian native wildlife, as well as the flora including Mallee country and the history we have a guided tour for small groups to the Gawler ranges, Eyre peninsula including Port Lincoln and Yorke peninsula.

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