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.
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Dr. Maria-Jutta Teege, Alwin-Mittaschplatz 12, D67063 Ludwigshafen,
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002
Left: Aerial view of the upper Finke River seen
from south to north. Left in the middle ground is the site of Palm
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
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
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
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
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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