Spinifex (Triodia species) is a tough, spiky tussock grass that dominates much of the red sand desert and rocky ranges of Central Australia.
Spinifex thrives on the poorest, most arid soils Australia has to offer. It is Spinifex that has prevented our deserts from becoming a Sahara-like world of bare, shifting sand.
Spinifex roots go down a long way: approximately 3 metres. Generally the roots develop from the same nodes as the shoots so that each shoot has its own personal water supply. The spiky leaves contain a lot of silica which makes them stiff and rigid.
Spinifex is tough and indigestible to most animals except termites. These tiny grazers thrive on the Spinifex litter. A grass that’s very poor in nitrogen and phosphorus poses no problems for them.
Some species of Spinifex dominate the sand country of Central Australia. Other species are found on the stony hills and ranges
Spinifex seeds are produced after exceptional rainfall events. The seed is an important source of food for many desert birds and rodents.
In areas long unburnt, rings of Spinifex join up, crowding out shorter-lived plants. Fire burns even green Spinifex and promotes the germination of a wide variety of shorter-lived plants, part of a cycle of burning and regrowth.
Spinifex grasslands are the single most extensive vegetation type in Australia, covering 22% of the continent.
Desert Aboriginal people collect certain species of Spinifex and bash it with a stick on a clean surface to begin the extraction of resin which occurs at the base of the stems. The chaff is heated with a fire stick causing the resin to melt. It is then rolled into a ball and used as an adhesive, mainly for attaching stone cutting chips to wooden implements such as spears.
Spiky Spinifex provides a good home for many desert lizards, snakes, birds and small mammals.
There are 64 species of Spinifex in Australia and 34 are found in the Northern Territory.