Central Australia wildflowers on display

By Troy Douglas 25 August 2010
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Photos taken over 60 years ago are the earliest colour images of Central Australian wildflowers.

TYPICALLY CONSIDERED inhospitable, Central Australia’s spectacular landscape can burst into bloom in times of heavy rain. Each year tourists descend on the area to capture the brilliant colours of desert wildflowers; they have done so since the 1940s and 1950s, according to a new exhibition at the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs, which features the earliest colour photos of native wildflowers.

The photographer, Pastor Samuel Gross, is likely to have been the first to take images using colour film in Central Australia, says Michelle Smith, a historian and curator with the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory. “His passion inspired many other people to take up the hobby,” she says.

A missionary in the Hermannsburg Aboriginal community between 1939 and 1958, Samuel recorded his surroundings, including close-ups of local fauna and flora. Before he could share the images, his Kodachrome film had to be sent to Adelaide for processing, a task which generally made photography in the region “a difficult hobby to have,” Michelle says.

Flowering natives

Well-known NT plant species appear in Samuel’s collection, including the holly grevillea (Grevillea wickhamii aprica), named for its prickly, toothbrush-like arrangement of flowers; and shrubs such as the spearbush (Pandorea doratoxylon ), which has long, entangled branches and bell-shaped creamy flowers.

To date, more than 4000 species of native plants have been identified in the NT, many in the harsh and arid interior. Around the rocky gorges, creeks and ranges, brilliant varieties of flower can accompany the onset of spring, adding contrast to the environment. Grevillea, in a multitude of colours from red and orange to green, is common in areas including the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, as are pink and yellow daisies.

In the sand dunes and plains, the desert heath myrtle (Thryptomene maisonneuvei) carpets the dusty earth with its combination of pink and white flowers, as does the desert fuchsia (Swainsona phacoides), often growing around Uluru’s sunset viewing platforms.

Climatic variation

Over coming months and due to prolonged rain over winter, the desert is set to come alive with blooms, says Michelle.The NT had its fifth highest recorded rainfall in July, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The Alice Springs district, which usually averages 200 to 300 mm annually, experienced its highest recorded July rainfall in 24 years.

This pattern of increasing rainfall in many parts of the Red Centre has developed since Samuel took his photos in the 1940s. “Perhaps due to global warming, there’s a greater variation of rainfall,” says Peter Latz, a botanist formerly of the NT Government’s Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been about ten years since our last good season,” he says. “normally, it’s every 25 years.”

The exhibition at the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs was planned to coincide with this period of bloom, says Michelle. It is hoped the photos – some depicting rare species and areas that might no longer have the same flowers –  can be used for research and plant identification.”It’s a great way to show the clarity and colour still in the photos,” she says.

Wildflowers: Central Australia on Kodachrome is on at the Museum of Central Australia, Araluen Cultural Precinct, from 20 August to 10 April 2011.