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HomeIssue 39A touch of light: ghost gums and fire beetles

A touch of light: ghost gums and fire beetles


All photos © Mike Gillam 

Our fire hoses wouldn’t reach beyond our boundary so we ran a relay of water buckets to the ghost gum engulfed by flames. The fire at the base of Teppa Hill had been caused by a campfire, abandoned by drunks when buffel grass took hold and flames swept up the hillside.

An accumulation of dead branches around the tree had produced a huge mound of coals and we simply lacked the water to fully extinguish it. I could see the hillside fire was going nowhere, a couple of grassy leads that stopped abruptly against cliffs and bare rock.  

At last, the fire brigade arrived and a hose was deployed but to my dismay they chased the fire up the rocks. With some urgency but careful not to dent egos, I pointed out the situation and asked them to please focus on the tree, the most valuable asset under imminent threat.

Thankfully the firefighters paused to read the fire and then complied, drenching the base of the ghost gum.

Next morning at daylight I returned to the tree and noticed some persistent hot coals. I applied a couple of buckets of water and a column of steam and smoke rose up in response. It was then that I noticed the fire beetles.

I heard the drone of approaching beetles, some circling and others landing on the lower trunk of the tree, perhaps twenty or so. I recognised the charcoal coloured beetles, a drab looking member of the vibrant jewel beetle family (Buprestidae), from earlier contacts on fire fronts in the Tanami desert.

I dropped the buckets and sprinted for a camera and tripod. When I returned some of the beetles had already paired, the larger females pushing abdomens into flaking bark and warm ash, still smoking and with red hot coals nearby, to lay their eggs (look carefully at the image below).

That was 15 years ago and since that time the tree has more than doubled its size. 

Last summer a blogger for Australian Geographic, Bec Crew, explained the beetle’s love of the burning landscape, citing research by German and Austrian scientists which “found that the beetles are ‘extremely thermophilic’, meaning they can withstand temperatures up to 46°C. They also have special infrared receptors on either side of their abdomen.”

A follow-up study revealed that the receptors weren’t there to detect the hot spots – not visible to the naked eye to humans or animals during the day –  but rather to protect the beetles when they landed on them, or to avoid them when approaching an egg-depositing site.

Ghost gums are a greatly underrated and maligned endemic tree, vastly superior to most that are routinely planted in our major public spaces. Miraculously, there are some fine plantings along the road reserves, for instance on the Larapinta Drive median strip as well as self seeded examples on the southern approach to the town.

Compared with river red gums, they appear to be much more resistant to termites and have a remarkable capacity to heal and close over wounds when branches are lost. They also seem to be much less inclined to drop limbs, an excuse that has been used to delete river red gums from civic landscaping lists.

Like red gums they do develop impressive galls on occasion (see left), probably a response to invasion by wasp and to a lesser extent, beetle larvae.

I’ve written previously on the parlous lack of planted shade in public places and can’t reconcile the unparalleled beauty and performance of ghost gums with their absence from Todd Mall, a site with alluvial soils perfectly suited to this species.

Slow growth is the catch cry that’s often used to ‘cancel’ ghost gums and compared with rapidly growing river red gums there is some truth to the claim. Equally there is sufficient evidence that high quality seedlings (not baked and root bound) planted in deep, well prepared, holes and supported by an appropriate irrigation regime and partial shading for the first few years will respond with vigour – as Alex Nelson has observed happening  at Olive Pink botanical gardens.

There is every reason to plant ghost gums in the mall, certainly inter-planted with faster growing pioneer species such as river red gums that can be thinned out progressively or retained where viable.

Instead, the Alice Springs Town Council and NT Government are apparently planning monolithic engineered structures that will further dumb down the mall to a retail standard that is lacking in spirit, throwing away our regional edge, because they’ve apparently lost the plot with trees.  

For that kind of money, we could buy a semi-trailer load of mature and unproductive date palms and crane them into the mall to provide instant organic pools of shade while the less water dependent ghost gums grow. There’s absolutely no way the proposed engineering substitutes will rival the unique sculptural beauty of trees drawn from our own region.

I’m surely not alone when I say it’s painful to watch this litany of failures continue, decade after wasted decade, in the public domain of a town that trumpets the importance of tourism but fails to engage arid zone knowledge.

It seems likely that this deviation is simply driven by a workforce desire for maintenance free solutions, a continuation of the concrete infills to traffic roundabouts. Surely we need to create more, not less, entry level jobs that have the added benefit of beautifying our town? 

Ghost gums and river red gums are an integral part of Centralia’s spiritual landscape. There are positive signs of improvement in the management of the Todd River but high quality public spaces that offer simple, effective, living shade continue to elude us. Shopping Centre food halls have become the air conditioned substitute for continuing failures in the public domain.

Starkly white and heat reflecting, ghost gums have earned their common name, as a CSIRO publication explains, “because of the intense whiteness of … trunk, branches, and twigs. This whiteness is due to a powder which comes off when rubbed and is used by the aborigines as a pigment. Bark scraped from the surface of the trunk yields about 20% by weight of crystalline triterpenes, and it appears to be this material which is responsible for the unusual appearance of the tree …”

In November Centralia’s river red gums, apere, will shed their bright flaking bark to reveal the fresh ivory underneath, a time when people might confuse some individuals with ghost gums, ilwenpe. Hybridisation is not uncommon amongst Eucalypts/Corymbias and this fact can also make identification difficult and lead to mistakes perpetuated in the literature. There are seven species of ghost gum distributed throughout inland and northern Australia.

 Centralia’s ghost gum, a species previously assigned to the composite Eucalyptus papuana has its scientific origins in a type specimen collected at Gosses Bluff by Herbert Basedow in 1925. This location is Western Aranda country and it seems likely the revised species name  aparrerinja chosen by botanist William Blakely was intended to honour the Aranda name for this tree.

Blakely worked at the National Herbarium of NSW from 1913 to1940 and the second edition of his book, A Key to the Eucalypts, was published in 1955, long after his death in 1941.

I couldn’t find his first edition but we can assume it was published in the previous decade. For reasons that will become clear I spent a great deal of time looking for the source for Blakely’s name aparrerinja, later adopted with some revision by taxonomists Hill and Johnson. According to an entry on the species on the Atlas of Living Australia site:   

Corymbia aparrerinja was first formally described in 1995 by Ken Hill and Lawrie Johnson from  specimens collected on Gosses Bluff by Herbert Basedow in 1925. The same specimens were used by William Blakely to describe (in English), Eucalyptus papuana F.Muell. var. aparrerinja, but Blakely did not provide a Latin diagnosis (‘origin/translation’), so the name was deemed invalid.

A friend advises that aparrerinja bears no resemblance to the Arrernte word for ghost gum, ilwenpe. I scoured the internet, including faded scientific papers to clarify this situation. In doing so I was reminded how diligent those early botanists were in collecting and publishing the names for trees and plants that were in use by Aborigines. But they still made mistakes from time to time and mistakes have a habit of endlessly recurring in the literature.

I can’t be certain but I’ll take a stab at how Blakely arrived at aparrerinja. As noted above he strangely ignored taxonomic convention by not providing a Latin diagnosis for his aparrerinja and was duly chided for this. According to the Eastern and Central Arrernte Dictionary published by IAD Press (1994), apere is the most commonly used name for river red gum. Spellings adopted by earlier anthropologists or linguists may well have included apare or aparre.

That leaves us with -rinja. Altjira (a spelling used by Lutheran linguists at Hermannsburg) and other variants such as Alcherinja (spelling used by Spencer and Gillen) and Alcheringa describe the creation period and it seems most probable that -rinja was fused with aparre to create aparrerinja. Current spellings altyerre and altyerrenge are cited in the Arrernte dictionary, their meaning defined as, “the Dreaming, Dreamtime; the creation of the world and the things in it, and its eternal existence.”

Spencer and Strehlow were in frequent linguistic conflict. Strehlow, the fluent speaker, regarded Spencer as some-one who used pidgin English to communicate with Aboriginal informants. Nonetheless, Arrernte words promoted by the better known and widely published Spencer were to become the most widely accepted interpretations and orthography. Unfortunately, Strehlow’s colossal contribution was only ever published in German and therefore not accessible to English-speaking researchers in Australia.

On the matter I’m interested in, local linguist David Moore is helpful: “…’altjirerinja’ is translated as ‘Traum’ (dream, noun) in Strehlow’s wordlist.  This is also of interest: “…from Kempe (1891) … ‘-aringa’ (denizen of, belonging to, of) in the current western orthography…”

Irrespective of translations and accuracy it does seem likely that botanical taxonomist Blakely followed Spencer & Gillen and not Basedow when he applied – erinja to create the scientific name aparrerinja. I’m unable to clarify his source for aparre but intend following this up with some of Centralia’s linguists.

After the original name proposed by Blakely was invalidated because he failed to define its origins, Hill and Johnson (1995) gave a cursory explanation to justify their adoption and description of Corymbia aparrerinja: “The epithet is a rendering of the name used by Aboriginal people in central Australia for this species as recorded by H. Basedow (fide Blakely 1936)”. The statement appears half right as Basedow favoured spelling alcheringa with g, not j.

Among those photographs taken by Herbert Basedow on his travels through Centralia I found a wonderful image of Albert Namatjira standing in front of a large ghost gum. Clearly the botanist taxonomist William Blakely was not confined to examining scraps of flowers, leaves and other specimens collected by Basedow; he was also exposed through the photographs to the beauty of the species he named aparrerinja. Interestingly, a solo exhibition of paintings by Namatjira caused a sensation in Melbourne in 1938. I intend to look more closely at the influence of Albert Namatjira and other Aboriginal artists on our appreciation of these trees in next week’s essay entitled “Twin Ghost Gums”.

So the incomparable Herbert Basedow, anthropologist, explorer, geologist, politician, medical practitioner and collector of a ghost gum specimen at Gosses Bluff simply asked the wrong question or got confused and applied the name for pale-looking river red gums to the ghost gum. Perhaps more to the point these were early days in the European recognition and definition of superficially similar species that were often lumped together as gum trees.

As newcomers to this strange land ‘explorers’ and travel writers could hardly ask the right questions of their better educated Aboriginal informers from a standpoint of relative ignorance. Frankly, I remain unsure and confused by the attribution of aparrerinja to Basedow. Unlike Strehlow or Spencer and Gillen, his published use of Aboriginal language was very sparse and I can find no reference to Arrernte words that are key to this word mystery.

I reckon Corymbia ilwemperinja has a nice ring to it and I’m sure the well intentioned and poetic plant taxonomist William Blakely would approve.


Last updated 3 October 2020, 10.40am, with addition of David Moore reference.


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  1. Gum trees are beautiful natives and look magnificent out in the bush.
    But we all know, if we have lived in the Red Centre long enough, that gum tress whatever their brand, are widow makers and also the roots get under the concrete and lift the concrete up, making dangerous traps for tripping on.
    Also as you can see in the Mall by the cinema, the bird droppings all over the footpath, and the gum leaves all over the road and paths.

  2. Kathy, thank-you for your comment and the opportunity to debunk the “widow-maker” myth. Unfortunately, these one-liners often used by bureaucrats to deflect criticism or excuse inaction, not only cause anxiety in our community, they also take space to refute. So here goes.
    There is much to be gained by listening to the experiences of people who have lived here all their lives, for instance Arrernte people who can draw upon the earliest human experiences and memories of life in Centralia.
    That said, I’ve gained significant insight on occasion from the observations of visitors who have been here for a few brief hours and in contrast, heard some ridiculous nonsense from people who were born here.
    I wish it was not necessary for me to speak up on these issues. Unfortunately, those who are qualified to speak are frequently silenced by politicians and public servants who control the massive flow and influence of public money, so frequently squandered.
    Professionals and consultants must abide by confidentiality agreements which often means they are engaged to camouflage and shore up negligent planning decisions.
    They are prevented from speaking to the media and must watch on as their recommendations are frequently ignored or mangled in the back rooms – well away from the public gaze. How else can I explain the systemic soft corruption that is holding our region back?
    Generally large trees provide superior shade, inspiration and bird friendly habitat than small trees. I know, you don’t like bird shit but we both know this is one of the least significant issues imaginable in a town centre that lacks quality public spaces.
    I guess some shop-keepers in the mall would agree with you. It’s easy to focus on minutiae when your business bottom line is plummeting year after year, in part because the mall is failing to attract significant numbers of people, in no small part because it is such an uninspiring place to be!
    The birds are one of the few assets in the mall and I think the public would vote for birds over the black blobs of chewing gum all over the pavers, don’t you? More trees would attract more birds, and would help our flocks of corellas, galahs and crows to cope with climate change while spreading their shit more widely. A win win!
    The use of root barriers, commonplace elsewhere in lavishly treed cityscapes will prevent lifting and cracking of concrete. Moreover, barriers will direct roots deeply towards the water table where they need to be and greatly improves the anchorage of gum trees and reduces their vulnerability to storm damage.
    Given the tens of thousands (?) of endemic Eucalypts in Alice Springs I’m not aware of anyone losing their husband from a falling branch in the past 130 years.
    A person is more likely to be killed by a flying sheet of corrugated iron, heat stroke or mall induced boredom. Nevertheless, precautions can be taken and include regular inspections of trees by a qualified arborist and even the partial closing of tree zones in the mall if freakish severe winds are forecast by the Bureau of Metereology.
    This already occurs when the river causeways are temporarily closed in the likelihood of flood.
    In combination drought affected trees and high winds can present an elevated risk but large ghost gums in the mall will be buffered from this as they mature and reach the active water-table.
    Referring to gum trees as widow makers, given the available evidence, reveals an extreme adherence to public safety that we break every time we get into a car or cross the street. Bureaucrats love one liner nonsense especially if it can be shrouded in public safety hysteria. Our town deserves much better.

  3. PS Kathy: I found an ABC link that addresses the “widowmaker” myth further and quotes Mark Hartley, an arborist and spokesperson for Arboriculture Australia, the national peak body for arborists that should allay your concerns.
    Like many Sydneysiders, the second generation arborist has witnessed the destruction caused by trees downed in the recent storms.
    He said it is important to remember that more people are killed each year by horses, chairs, and falling out of bed: “The chances of being killed by a falling tree is one in five million … so if you’re lying awake and thinking about the storm perhaps you should be thinking about getting a futon.
    Most of what we are concerned about is not a reality. It’s just a phobia that is irrational.”


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