Spinifex grass – friend and foe
The common name ‘Spinifex grass’ is not fully correct as a botanical term for discussed grasses, as commonly named ‘Spinifex’ grasses belong to the genus ‘Triodia’, whereas the genus ‘Spinifex’ itself contains mainly coastal grasses. Whatever it is, the common name ‘Spinifex’ comprises two kinds of inland grasses: a harder and pricklier version in arid environments of Australia and a northern Australian version, which is doing better in more humid tropical environments.
Why Spinifex is not liked
Every bush traveler will know and be aware of spinifex, as it is nearly impossible to walk through it due to their spiky tips of their leave blades. And handling these blades will leave you with a multitude of splinters in your hands. Bad stuff. Luckily, they are growing in clumps. So, it will often be possible to circle around these clumps. And there were cases, when persons were pricked by spinifex leaf tips, that they were experiencing anaphylactic shock. Additionally, although spinifex covers about one quarter of the whole continent, it has not got any grazing value.
Spinifex – the provider of shelter, resin and thinner condoms
On the other hand, spinifex holds big advantages: Firstly: It acts as a shelter for a multitude of small animals. Secondly: Its resin is very sought after by First Nations people, as it can be re-melted and will re-harden again – multiple times – without becoming brittle. And thirdly: spinifex contains nano-cellulose, which is responsible for its drought resistance and strength, for modern technical applications, like stronger latex for thinner condoms, or fire hose linings and many other applications.
Shelter for a variety of animals
If animals are small enough to navigate around the prickly leaf tips, a spinifex hammock is the perfect shelter for reptiles, mice and even birds. They are highly protected within this mini -ecosystem, and even can live from insects, like ants and termites, from within. And as these hammocks tend to form rings by growing outwards and die off in the middle, relatively big spaces of a protected ecosystem are formed.
Spinifex is therefore a keystone environment for many endemic Australian species. But to keep our excitement in prospective: In many areas, spinifex was eradicated for agricultural purposes. For example, in south-western NSW, only 3% of spinifex areas remain nowadays compared to the times before European settlers moved in.
Highly valuable Spinifex resin
For collecting spinifex resin (‘gum’), grass blades are being threshed, until small particles of resin are falling down, which will be collected and heated up until black tar clumps are formed, which are still used and molded when warm. At some spinifex species, resin is even flowing and dripping down the leaves and stems on hot days and after burning hummocks, quite often clumps of resins remain on the ground.
This gum/resin/tar – whatever somebody prefers to call it – is used for a variety of hafting applications of tools and implements. Most importantly in areas where suitable spinifex species grow, it is used to haft spear blades on to spear handles and the blade into a Woomera (traditional axe). Every hunter not only carries a spear, but also a lump of spinifex resin for repairs on the go. For re-softening, the gum can be heated up next to a fire and kneading with some water will re-soft it again.
Another application of spinifex resin is caulking and waterproofing of containers. In former times these were mainly wooden containers, nowadays even jerrycans or billies can be repaired with spinifex gum. A versatile product for bush mechanics.
Lessons learned about Spinifex grass
- Although spinifex can be a pain when walking through Australian scrubland, it is of vital importance to the ecosystem as a whole.
- Spinifex resin can even replace supermarket adhesives
- Hopefully, easier extraction of spinifex nano-cellulose will benefit mankind, and not help to eradicate this iconic grass even further.