A touch of light: heavenly night scent



Photos © Mike Gillam

Unless you’re an incredibly lucky transient, the sight of curved, arched and shiny leaves with clusters of spectacular white flowers glowing in the moonlight is reserved for those who have lived remotely for a long time.

I scan my memory and conclude the Sandover lily, inauspiciously named Crinium flaccidum, is the largest flower in arid Australia. A bald statement, it’s true, but I’m certain readers of the Alice News will correct me if I’m wrong.

The usual sources of information such as Wikipedia yield scant information about desert lilies but I’m able to piece together an Australian distribution for C.flaccidum that includes all mainland states.

In addition to the usually white, occasionally yellow, Sandover lily I’m aware of a further two species that occur in Centralia. One, purplish black in appearance (left) was shown to me by local botanist Peter Latz. The specimen was growing in a plastic pot and was well attended by bush flies while I was taking a photograph. Situated in open shade, the flower was unusually still intact during the late morning. This lily is apparently quite widespread in Central Australia but seldom seen.

I’ve encountered another small yellow flowering lily (below left) that seems quite widespread in the lower Lake Eyre basin and doubtless beyond. I don’t have scientific names for either species but I’ll try to go past the herbarium if readers are interested.

Appropriately the Sandover lily provides the gorgeous floral emblem of Urapuntja Health Utopia that serves the scattered remote communities and homelands in the heart of lily country. The name of this elegant plant is Ilyelkernng in both Alyawarr and Anmatyerr, the two regional languages.

I’m sure the nascent bulbs and short-lived splendour of the white and sometimes yellow lily flower have made this plant a subject for local painters such as the incomparable Emily Kngwarreye and her adopted sister, Lily Sandover Kngwarreye.

I have heard anecdotal accounts of fence-line effects where high stocking rates had eliminated C.flaccidum from one side of the fence, while lilies were abundant on the opposite lightly grazed side. It’s unclear whether lilies were simply grazed to oblivion or ground compaction was also a factor.

I had less success obtaining information about the lily with smaller yellow flowers that occurs, along with C.flaccidum, in arid South Australia. Like the Sandover lily this species appears after drenching rains on the margins of swamps and minor drainages and moisture zones such as inundation basins in low lying mulga shrubland.

The lilies erupt out of the ground, produce a handful of flowers that wilt after sunrise leaving a cluster of swollen nodules at their base. These fall from the rapidly drying lily stems and if conditions are favourable, send down roots to a depth of approximately 50 cm. Over time the bulb develops in readiness for the next summer/autumn rain event.

The night flowers of C.flaccidum are heavily scented and I recall little about the smell except that it’s slightly odious to humans but clearly heavenly to beneficial insects. Dedicating a night or two to observing the insects attracted to the lily flowers remains on my very long list of photographs pending.

Of Ilkelkernng, Latz notes in Bushfires and Bushtucker (1995) that the lily was used as a traditional bush medicine and “…The bulb is reputedly eaten in other parts of Australia; in Central Australia it is bitter and considered poisonous…”


Below: Lilies at home amongst the mulga. 

Recently in this series:

A touch of light: flower, bee, lynx spider and jackal flies

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Last updated 3 March 2021, 8.58am.


  1. Several Sandover lillies grow at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
    The oldest cluster, dating from Olive Pink’s time, appears between the wild orange tree and eastern end of the mulga grove right next to the track towards the gazebo.
    There used to be a large number of these lillies located at the junction of the tracks near the waterhole at the rear of the Visitor Centre; unfortunately this spot has been covered by a large mound with well established different plants growing on it now.
    Almost certainly the bulbs are still there, languishing beneath a metre or so of additional soil that somebody thought was a good idea to put there.
    However, all is not lost – years ago when I was working at Olive Pink Botanic Garden I propagated a number of juvenile Sandover lillies that I collected after a particularly vigorous display of blooms.
    I installed these young plants (from memory about two dozen of them) in the area I considered most ideal for Sandover lillies, just inside the earth wall of the pond bank area adjacent to the gazebo.
    That was about 15 years ago or so ago, and those young plants have had to fend for themselves ever since.
    I was gratified to see most of them appeared through the thick mats of tarvine and munyeroo in response to the good rain in late December although most are still fairly small plants; however this was probably the first opportunity they’ve had to grow for quite some years, I imagine.

  2. I saw a whole field of them driving back from Adelaide to Alice Springs in early February this year North of Lake Hart.

  3. Ruth, thanks for your observation. Can you be more specific with a date and location? I’m curious to know how much rainfall triggered this event.

  4. Hello Mike: When I worked at TiTree from 2001 to 2011, the lillies appeared after a good rain. I only saw them about twice (after substantial rain) in the time I was living at Ti Tree.


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