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Livistona mariae

Everyone's heard of Australia's red heart, but do you know the equally red palm that grows there? Dr. Teege's wonderful article explains all.
Dr. Maria-Jutta Teege, Alwin-Mittaschplatz 12, D67063 Ludwigshafen, Germany
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002

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Left: Aerial view of the upper Finke River seen from south to north. Left in the middle ground is the site of Palm Valley.
Right, above: The red coloured seedlings of Livistona mariae displaying their leaves above the light red sand.
Right, below: L. mariae protected from desert winds by Palm Valley's sandstone walls.

The Australian continent, well known for its deserts, its iron ore and the thousands of square miles of spiky spinifex grassland has something else worth seeing. Some hidden treasures to delight the palm enthusiast. You are one? Good. Then this is my recommendation for what to do in Australia: Go to Alice Springs, the little town right in the middle of the continent. After visiting the amazing and justly famous rock formations of Ayer's Rock and the nearby Olgas you have done your duty in stones and you are free for something else. Go and hire a car, a 4-wheel drive of course, and head out for a day's tour of Palm Valley.

The first 132 kin on mostly bitumen road from 'the Alice' to the west is without problems. Just before the old mission station 'Hermannsburg' you turn left to the south, into the dry bed of the Finke River where the bank is not too high, and begin the adventure of a more than 20 kin drive downstream along the dry bed. You will be most successful from April to October, and even then it can be difficult enough.

Australian rivers are untamed. In the dry season maybe you can use them as a road, covered with small or big stones loose on the bottom. But probably there are some waterholes along the river bed and you have to decide whether to drive through, not knowing their depth, or to by-pass them along the sandy river bank. In 'the Wet' when the rivers flood, they will sweep away both you and your car.

At last you will reach an impressive rock formation, the 'Amphitheatre' with the old 'Initiation Rock' of the aboriginal tribes who lived here. At this place the Finke River turns left but you turn right along Palm Creek, a tributary. You pass a camping ground - the only one in the area - and after an even more difficult drive along Palm Creek, the 'road' ends at the head of a long valley.

And here you can see them: the Red Cabbage Palms, Livistona mariae. Protected against the dry desert winds by the surrounding walls of red sandstone and with the quite remarkable supply of water from a creek above and below the surface of the ground, these beautiful, tall, fan-palms have survived in this isolated population for millions of years. It was in 1872 that the first white man, the explorer Ernest Giles, 'discovered' them. He was struck by this natural wonder of palm trees surrounded by vast deserts, quite inhospitable for palms, in all directions. Today we suppose that they are relics of a bigger population from an age long ago when the central part of Australia was wetter than now.

Since then, the climate has changed to arid but the Finke River has kept its course and is thought to be one of the oldest watercourses in the entire world. You can walk about 1.5 km into Palm Valley on a sandy and stony footpath along Palm Creek and marvel at the 3000 or so individuals of the Red Cabbage Palm.

If you visit in April soon after the wet season there will be many streams, pools and waterholes, and the bushes, grasses and white-stemmed Eucalyptus trees are a lush green. Perhaps you would like to take a dip in the clear, refreshing water of a larger pool. The hot sun will soon warm you up again. Looking up, you may see a bunch of dry grass trapped in the fork of a tree two metres above water level, a reminder of the height and power of the river during the last 'Wet'.

In July and August you will be delighted to see beautiful seedlings of Livistona mariae displaying their red-coloured leaves at ground level in full and perfect harmony with the red sand. The older plants still show red on the upper surface of the leaf and the spiny-margined leafstalks. Adult trees produce glossy, black, spherical fruits about 1.5cm in diameter, which contain one big seed.

Nowhere else in the world will you find Livistona mariae growing wild, and the site is now protected by its inclusion in the Finke Gorge National Park, which includes Palm Valley and a part of the upper Finke River area.

Another interesting plant you can find clinging to the rocky slopes above Palm Creek is the palm-like Macrozamia macdonnellii. As a cycad, its flowers develop as cones which look more like those of confifers, to which they are more closely related than to the palms, and they are considerably older in evolutionary terms.

But if you think the way to Palm Valley is too far, and too difficult, you may be lucky enough to find some Livistona mariae in a botanic garden or if you are patient - you can grow it at home in the glass-house, and when you see its red leaves developing you can perhaps imagine the countless thousands of ancestors of this individual which have been living far away under the cloudless blue skies of Central Australia.

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