Recreating the Country blog
Kangaroo Grass, Themeda triandra
A tree without a trunk
Revelations are moments in life when strongly held opinions are radically changed by a new insight. One such revelation for me was on a grasslands tour in 2016 with Dr John Morgan, a plant ecologist from La Trobe University - click here to John's interesting blog site.
My revelation came when John Morgan told me that Kangaroo Grass (KG) can live for more than 100 years if it is well managed. To emphasise his point he called it 'a tree without a trunk'.
Regular cool burning every five to ten years is part of the secret of keeping KG healthy and long lived.
I had always thought that the longest living Australian plants were trees, but now I had to accept from this very reliable source that a common native grass that only grows to about knee high could outlive many trees.
The origin of the botanical name is Arabic and Latin
Themeda is from the Arabic word thaemed which means ‘a rain filled depression that dries out in summer’. This concisely describes the ability of Kangaroo Grass to do well in both moist rich soils as well as dry environments.
triandra is from the Latin ‘tri’ & ‘andrus’ meaning three males. This tells us it that ‘the flowers have three male reproductive parts or stamen’. It's a subtle feature that can help identify KG
To pronounce the scientific name, the genus Them-eda starts with a soft 'th' as in think and theme. The species name is as simple as it looks, Try-and-dra.
The traditional grazing food of kangaroos and wallabies. KG tussocks provide excellent habitat for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like skinks, legless lizards, frogs and dunnarts.
The seeds are an important food for finches and parrots.
KG attracts butterflies like the Common Brown, Heteronympha merope and 13 other species
Kangaroo Grass in the garden
I have always been a fan of Kangaroo Grass (KG) because it’s such a hardy, attractive and useful plant. Its unique flower head or floret provides a rustic yet beautiful contrast. The florets and flowering stems mature to a vibrant bronze colour over summer making it a feature in any garden either as a single specimen or as a clump.
You’re more likely to attract butterflies to your garden if you plant it in clumps of five or more. To give you an idea of a good spacing for each plant, in a natural grassland a healthy clump of KG has about 10 plants/m2. That works out to a plant spacing of 25 - 30 cm
John Batman was a fan
A love of KG is something I apparently share with the founder of Melbourne John Batman, who got very excited when he first wandered around 'Djillong' in 1835. (The Wadawurrung name for Geelong means 'tongue of land')
Batman was describing Kangaroo Grasslands on a walk across the Bellarine Peninsula when he wrote;
‘We passed into the country and at a distance of four miles (6.4km) commenced travelling over land a little sandy in places, but of the finest description for grazing purposes; nearly all parts of its surface covered with Kangaroo and other grasses of the most nutritive character, intermixed with herbs of various kinds’.
Because it is also a native to Africa and Asia, no doubt Batman knew its value as a nutritious perennial pasture grass. Remarkably it just keeps on giving and doesn’t need much fertiliser, like most Australian plants that have adapted to our leached ancient soils.
The First Australians
When the first fleet arrived in 1787 it is estimated that Kangaroo Grasslands covered 70% of Australia. So it’s not surprising that it was highly valued by the First Australians who harvested its protein rich grain for bread making.
Bruce Pascoe, in his acclaimed book Dark Emu, quotes archaeological evidence that KG and other grasses were ground into flower for bread making 30,000 years ago. This is 13,000 years before the Egyptians began baking in 17,000 BC. Click here to the Australian Museum's article on this topic
It was regularly burnt to produce a green pick to encourage mobs of kangaroos to graze near woodlands where they could be conveniently speared for food.
Making a Kangaroo Grass seed biscuit
Inspired by Dark Emu I decided to make a KG seed biscuit. I selected 100 KG seeds (approx. 0.5 grams) from last summers garden harvest, removed the awns and ground the seeds with a mortar & pestle. The flower was then separated from the husks with a kitchen sieve and then a little water added to make pastry for a small biscuit, which was baked without oil in a non-stick pan until crisp.
As you can see from the photos below, it made a biscuit worthy of the Guinness World Records as the smallest ever made. Though it was large enough to taste the unique flavour.
Read more about baking a commercial loaf of bread using KG here
I understand that the seed is gluten free and this was my observation during the making of the biscuit. The flower did glue together well and held its shape in the frying pan because of the starch released during the mashing process.
In 100 grams of KG there is :
Energy: 1819 kJ. Protein: 19.8-21.7 g. Total fats: 8.5 g. Saturated fats: 0.9 g. Unsaturated fats: 7.6 g. Total carbohydrates: 52 g. Total minerals: 9.6 g.m.
(Ref: Native Grains from paddock to plate. Sydney University study. September 2020)
A photo record of making a Kangaroo Grass seed biscuit
How it tasted
The flavour was pleasant and nutty with a strong element of rye. I gave it 7/10, my wife 5/10
The appearance was grey-brown with some visible fibres before cooking. After cooking it was a pumpernickel bread dark brown colour. My wife and I both gave it a 5/10 for counter-top appeal.
Interestingly we both had a sensation of astringency on the tip of our tongues a few minutes after eating the biscuit which lasted about 5 minutes. Overall we thought the KG seed biscuit had potential and deserved further trials. Read here about using KG seed flour in bread making
Managing your patch of Kangaroo Grass.
Traditionally grazing mobs of kangaroos did provide some fertiliser for KG. Today this can be mimicked by a flock of sheep. The KG is ‘crash grazed’ (for a few days) in late spring before November flowering or in late autumn/early winter before the soil becomes wet and is likely to pug.
Slashing and removing the slash is an alternative management method
If you’re lucky enough to have a patch of KG on your property you can keep it healthy with a combination of grazing/slashing and burning every 5 – 10 years. This helps to minimise the build-up of dead grass (thatch) around the base of plants and prevents them from becoming overcrowded (fewer than 15 plants/m2 is recommended). Both the build-up of thatch and overcrowding will cause KG plants to slowly die.
If it is lightly grazed it stays green throughout the summer, making it an excellent fire break as well.
KG expert and a self-confessed enthusiast John Delpratt writes;
‘KG is a fantastic grass – with just enough quirks to make it challenging and fun as well. As the dominant component of a roadside reserve, it is relatively easily managed by periodic burning or slashing. It grows actively in late spring and summer and its tussock structure can support a wide diversity of other grasses and seasonally-colourful wildflowers, providing the traveller with a wonderfully Australian sense of place. A well-managed Themeda community is resilient and very resistant to weed invasion’.
John Delpratt is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Melbourne. He was a lecturer in plant production and seed technology at the University’s Burnley campus for 25 years prior to his retirement. To read more about John and his fascination with KG click here
KG as a valuable crop
KG is a valuable crop and will return consistently $1000/ha or more. Its seeds can be harvested in late December when flower heads (florets) are stripped with a purpose built harvester and blown into wool-bales. One hectare will usually yield one wool bale which is valued at $1,000 - $2,000 for revegetation projects. That's not bad for a perennial crop that needs no fertiliser and will provide good yields for 100 years or more without needing to be re-sown.
Cleaned seed sells for around $3/g and there are 210 seeds without awns/g (Fiona Love pers. com.)
Much of the microfine Merino wool that has achieved extraordinary prices on international markets is grown on native pastures like KG
Harvesting Kangaroo Grass – when and how
KG is ready to harvest in late December when the seed is dark brown and the dark brown awn (tail) remains firmly attached to the seed when you give it a gentle tug. If the awn is not visible on the florets, the seeds have probably dropped and it’s too late to harvest. On these occasions look for KG on moister ground or in shady environments that may still be holding seed. The florets can carry up to seven seeds, though two/three seeds are infertile.
Collecting Kangaroo Grass in large quantities is conveniently done with a purpose built harvester like the Bandicoot Native Grass Harvester. The Bandicoot can be towed behind a ute or a quad bike. It has rotating brushes that remove the florets and shoots them into a trailer or a wool-bale. This machine has a height adjustment for harvesting different species of native grasses.
An alternative technique is to use a combination of a sickle-bar mower or brush cutter and a portable industrial vacuum cleaner. The florets should be collected within 24 hours of cutting, before the seed is released.
Collecting smaller quantities for growing in tubestock
I have found a small scythe (rice harvester) is convenient for harvesting KG. Secateurs also work well to cut bunches of stems before pushing them floret first into a large plastic bucket/bin.
With both large and small quantity harvesting, the seed needs to dry before it is stored long term. This is conveniently done in open wool-bales with large quantities. I found large open plastic bread trays, open bins or large paper bags ideal for the small quantities required for nursery production.
As the florets dry the mature seeds with awns attached drop out and falls to the bottom of the bucket or paper bag.
Bellarine Landcare Nursery has developed a more sophisticated method of separating the seed from the florets. The harvested florets are spread over a large metal grill that sits over a lined box. Disturbing the florets from time to time allows the seeds to drop through. It’s then an easy process to separate the fallen seeds from the fragments of florets. The cleaned seed can be stored with or without the awn in a zip-lock bag and remains viable for decades if kept in a cool dark place.
Re-establishing Kangaroo Grasslands
There are a number of examples of Kangaroo Grass being successfully re-established in the field using direct seeding techniques.
John Delpratt writes below about his group’s achievements re-establishing large areas of native grasslands on roadsides at Woorndoo, near Hamilton. To read more about this project click here
Geminating KG - the tricks of the trade
KG is tricky to germinate from seed because it usually goes into dormancy shortly after it matures (dormant seed is still viable but doesn’t germinate).
Seed can be sown onto a seedling tray in Spring/Summer by spreading it over seed-raising mix roughly and evenly. As the humidity changes the awns begin to twist and wiggle, drilling the seed into the potting mix. It’s amazing to watch the awns 'come alive' after the seedling trays are watered.
I usually hold the seed by its awn and push two or three seeds into each hiko cell to ensure a good germination result. With this method there is no transplanting needed. Some seeds shoot within a few days and over 1-2 weeks most seeds will have their first leaf. If the seed hasn't germinated in 1 month then its unlikely that it will.
With the addition of some native slow release fertiliser they will grow and strengthen over the next few months and be ready for planting in the garden or the back paddock by Autumn. If they are growing in a hot house, move tubestock into an exposed outside environment at least one month before planting in the field. This toughening process is called 'hardening off' and should be done with all plants to prepare them for the exposed growing conditions they will experience in an open paddock
To read more about Kangaroo Grass I found this page full of good information -
The Australian Herbarium’s website>
For all the closet grassland lovers out there
– it’s time to come out and declare your passion
Have you ever walked over your backyard grass/lawn and been enchanted by its beauty, colour and diversity? Most of you would say something like ‘You’ve got to be joking’!
If you answered yes, then you either love a perfect lawn, regularly mowed to within an inch of its life, or you’re one of the few fortunate Australians that have a remnant native grassland on your property. What a rare treasure trove you have!
It’s confronting to consider that not very long ago all of our back and front yard lawns, as well as our grassy nature strips, were part of a rich and beautiful native grassland or grassy woodland/forest. Each unique to its location and each supporting an interconnected ecosystem of insects, birds and small mammals.
I get super excited when I discover a remnant clump of native grass or a wildflower on a farm visit, during a wander along a creek or even walking along a country street glancing at the nature strip. For me it’s like stepping through a time warp or looking through a window into the past. It’s a powerful reminder of the richness that was once there.
I can’t help but wonder what Australia would be like today, if 250 years ago when we foreigners first stepped on shore;
Here is a glimpse into a past, before grassy monocultures displaced our diverse national heritage;
It's October. The Milkmaids and Bulbine-lilies have begun to speckle the open areas with white and yellow. Beard Orchids are flowering with a scattering of Donkey Orchids and forests of spectacular Spider Orchids. Austral Bugle opens purple trumpet-like flowers, tiny Sweet Hound's-tongue perfumes the air and Trigger-plants grow tall from grassy tufts. Late in the month the Salmon and Slender Sun Orchids, always sensitive about the weather, will open delicately coloured blooms only if the day is warm enough.
Where to look for surviving native grassland plants
You're more likely to find surviving native grassland plants in places that are difficult to access.
These are out of the way corners that have been less disturbed by people, stock or machinery and they are likely to be treasure troves. These places are usually steep, have rocky outcrops, haven't had any fertiliser added or perhaps sheltered under the canopy of old native trees.
In both urban and rural areas undisturbed parts of cemeteries are often wonderful refuges for native plants. Also check out roadside reserves and rail reserves near you
In rural areas steep creek banks and hillsides with rocky outcrops usually don't disappoint. Paying a visit to old paddock trees (give them a hug while you're there - see Connecting with nature - a journey into mindfulness) will often reveal a few species of hardy remnant grasses, hardy lilies and some of the more resilient native herbs.
A slow wander in spring when plants are flowering can reveal remnant native grasses, herbs, lilies and orchids. Taking the time to explore and make these discoveries is a very rewarding experience!
Often the grassland plants that you will discover are remnant native grasses
Getting to know the grasses
Identifying native grasses is quite easy.
Here are some 'tips' to get you started;
Useful references on native grasses;
The Victorian Volcanic Plains Biosphere July 2021 newsletter (scroll down and click 'here' to download the pdf) - a great read, very useful articles on grasslands and beautifully presented.
Corangamite CMA have just put out a long awaited new edition of 'Plains Facts'. There is a lovely article by Trevor Pescott on the Owlet Nightjar and important information on the Stewardship program that is presently on offer, plus lots more. Its a well produced six-monthly newsletter
Surf Coast Nature search - helpful pictures of wildflowers and grasses found in coastal areas
Friends of Grasslands: Grasses : Habits and Habitats - lists and descriptions of native grasses
Australian Grasses - a gardener's guide to native grasses, sedges, rushes and grass trees by Nick Romanowski
Native Grasses. Identification Handbook for Temperate Australia. Ed 3 by Meredith Mitchell. Pub CSIRO.
The most commonly seen native grasses;
Kangaroo Grass (once covering 70% of Australia), Weeping Grass, Windmill Grass, Wallaby Grasses, Spear Grasses and tussock grasses).
Picture gallery of the more common native grasses
Please hover over the images for descriptions.
They must be bonkers!
Native grasslands or native 'artlands'
If you heard a rumour about someone who painted over a priceless Sidney Nolan artwork what would you think? Maybe you’d wonder if they’d gone bonkers. Of course something like that would never happen. No doubt Nolan would have skillfully worked his magic on a canvass for a week or two. Carefully crafting a story through his images of very harsh almost apocalyptic Australian landscapes.
In my view planting a lawn, a crop or trees over a priceless remnant grassland is just as bonkers, but sadly this does happen very often.
A grassland is crafted by nature over tens of thousands of years and each grassland is a unique ‘canvas’. The many species of small flowering plants combine in a balance of colour and texture that only a master artist could conceive.
The intricate ecosystem that is woven into the fabric of each plant community is truly remarkable. A walk through a grassland on a dewy morning will reveal thousands of small sparkling lace-like spider webs adorning the small plants. Each web a masterpiece in itself and each web built only to last one night. There begins the web of life. The larger insects, skinks and small birds feasting on both the spiders and their catch.
These grasslands and grassy woodlands that once covered about one third of Victoria are now almost gone. These priceless and unique works of art have been 'painted' over with new ideas and dreams that promised profit and progress. With the benefit of hindsight these goals now look short sighted as well as being very shallow and tawdry
As extremely rare surviving works of art, what value is a native grassland today?
Stop for a minute and think about what we have lost.
Unlike a Sidney Nolan painting that’s been painted over, a grassland can’t be restored to its original intricacy. Any grassland we plant is unlikely to reach the complexity and diversity of an original that has evolved over millennia.
May be you have a priceless work of art in your back paddock - what a magnificent asset!
Looking after what is left of these irreplaceable natural assets has to become a top priority for our generation. Otherwise the next generation will only know them as myths and legends, like Ned Kelly in one of Sidney Nolan’s famous paintings.
You could be paid for protecting your grassland
A current Corangamite CMA project aiming to fund the protection and maintenance of grasslands and grassy woodlands has struggled to find enough sites in healthy condition.
This program which is called ‘Grassy Eucalypt Woodlands Stewardship Program’ is offering to pay land-owners to look after and improve their remnant grasslands and grassy woodlands. It offers great support and cultural burning undertaken by the Wadawurrung People, the Traditional Owners.
For more information contact Jess Lill at the CCMA at email@example.com
Get up close to wonderful grasslands near you
(John Delpratt and Helen Scott added details of beautiful grasslands to visit as 'comments' below.
If you have a beautiful grassland that you want to share, please let us know in the 'comments')
Learning about grassland plants takes you on an adventure into plants as well as to amazing places. September and October are good months to see grassland plants flowering. If you take a magnifying glass or a camera with a good macro-lens you will be 'blown away' by their extraordinary beauty.
Contact Parks Victoria (or similar in your state), your local Council or Landcare Australia to discover a local 'Friends of ' group and join them for a spring walk in a grassland near you
For more ideas on managing grasslands.
The articles below are recommended;
John Delpratt, an honorary fellow at Melbourne University, discusses restoring Kangaroo Grass communities on disturbed roadsides at Woorndoo, Victoria, in two excellent articles.
Part 1 & Part 2
Grassland management - Grazing as an important management tool
This article draws on my experience and research, and explains the benefits of grazing techniques to improve the diversity and health of grasslands
In my August blog Kangaroo Grass will be put under the spotlight.
This tough adaptable long-lived perennial returns between $1,000 & $2,000/ha for its seed alone. It has many other economic benefits, plus it has a very low fire risk. I'll also discuss seed collecting and propagation for all the DIY readers.
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.