After reading reports of the annual blaze of wildflower colour in the desert dunes near Roxby Downs in South Australia, we decided to take a drive to have a look for ourselves before the plants had run their life cycle.
Sturt’s Desert Pea swainsona formosa was named after the European explorer Captain Charles Sturt, in his travels through outback Australia in 1844/45, although they had been collected as a specie by William Dampier in 1688. The genus name Swainsona honours Isaac Swainson who maintained a private botanic garden at Twickenham near London about the year 1789. The specific name formosa is Latin for ‘beautiful’. The plant famous for its distinctive blood-red leaf-like flowers, each with a bulbous black centre, or “boss”. It is one of Australia’s best known wildflowers. It is native to the arid regions of central and north-Western Australia, and its range extends into all mainland Australian states with the exception of Victoria. It is the state emblem of South Australia.
It is generally considered to be a short-lived annual, it has been known to persist as a perennial if conditions are favourable. If the roots are left undisturbed, flowering may resume in the next season.
It is well adapted to life as a desert plant. The small seeds have a long viability, and can germinate after many years. Seeds have a hard seed coat, which protects them from harsh arid environments until the next rainfall, but inhibits germination in normal domestic environments. Growers can overcome this dormancy either by nicking the seed coat away from the ‘eye’ of the seed, by rubbing the seed gently between pieces of sandpaper, or by placing the seed in hot (just off-boiling) water and leaving it to soak overnight.
Once germinated, seedlings quickly establish a deep taproot, vital for desert survival. This means that if domestically grown, they should either be planted in their intended final location, transplanted as soon as possible after germination, or grafted as a seedling on to a different root such as the bladder senna, Colutea arborescens. They do not tolerate disturbance of their roots but, once established in well-drained soil, require little and infrequent watering, and can withstand extreme heat and sunshine, as well as light frosts.
Sturt’s Desert Pea is not endangered, but it is illegal to collect specimens of the plant from Crown Land without a permit. The plants must not be collected from private land without the written consent of the land owner.
Some aboriginal tribes know it as the Blood Flower. Mythology says that a young girl had been promised by marriage to an older tribal elder. She escaped the tribe with a young man and they went to live far away. Some time after that event they were tracked down by the tribal elders and killed. Again even later in time the tribal elder had an opportunity to visit the site of the murder again and found the blood red flower where the young girl had died.
Arriving at Roxby Downs in the late afternoon we still found the Information Centre open and armed with a mudmap supplied, we made for the closest sighting. We had read of variations to the colours but internet research seemed to suggest that this could only be propagated by grafting. Not so it seems, as our first sighting was of a sea of red flowers with 5 white flower clumps set in the middle. We also saw the flowers in the colours purple, brown, orange and pink and we were told, by a local resident, that there is a yellow variety as well.
The viewing sites lie between Roxby Downs town, which services the mine site for BHPBilliton’s Olympic Dam Mine. Located 560 kilometres north of Adelaide, Olympic Dam is a multi-mineral ore body. It is the world’s fourth largest remaining copper deposit, fifth largest gold deposit and the largest uranium deposit. It also contains significant quantities of silver.
Just before sunset we crossed a sanddune off the Andamooka Road and found a nice secluded spot for a camp away from the public eye. Dry Gidgea wood was in abundance and we had a rip roaring fire to cook our tucker and to boil the billy. Some drops of rain were heard during the night but at sunrise there was no wetness outside our van.
We spent the morning looking at a sea of flowers and not only the peas, as the desert is in full bloom after good winter rains. Judith painted the colours on a pad for future reference and later in the morning we drove to the Opal Mining Town of Andamooka. After buying some touristy things and food we concluded that one would have to have a special temperament to live there. We spent some time noodling at a noodling mullock heap set up to keep tourists amused.
And it was so back to Olympic Dam and on to the Borefield Road across the endless flat plains. Some say that the landscape is so flat that if you looked towards the east you could see into the middle of next week! About halfway along this road we stopped for a cuppa and found that the outlet pipe of the watertank on our caravan had broken and that we had lost all of our water. I had a spare outlet nozzle and fitted it and away we went again. Nearing the Oodnadatta Track after 114 kilometres of good gravel road we were stopped by a fellow traveller who advised that the Oodnadatta Track to the south was closed at three different places as there had been a substantial amount of rain. We said thanks and pushed on to the viewing point at Lake Eyre South to see the last of the water in the lake. Evaporation is increasing now with summer temperatures on the rise and the lake could be dry by the new year. Here we discovered that the replaced watertank nozzle had also broken. We were going to drive the Oodnadatta Track towards the town of Marree and then wait for the roads to open, but faced with the prospect of having only 30 litres of emergency water left in our containers, we opted to return home the way we had come. So it was back down the Borefield Road again and for a second night’s camp between the sand dunes.
The following day we went scouting for some more Sturt Pea sites and by mid morning we were wending our way back towards Port Augusta and home. We stopped at the Woomera Cemetery and visited Len Beadell’s grave. At Woomera Township we walked around and took photos of all the planes and rockets on display. We visited the information centre and made some valuable purchases.
The 310km journey home was uneventful except for seeing a flock of healthy looking Emus. After a refuel and a feed at Port Augusta we made our way up Horrocks Pass to the higher foothills of the Southern Flinders Ranges and out across the inland route towards our place