Habitat: Forests, heaths
Description and uses:
Yakkas (Xanthorrhoea sp) or ‘Grass Trees’ are common around Gawler and most of South Australia. They consist of a thickened stem, long, sharp, pointed leaves and a distinctive flower spike. Yakkas thrive where there are bushfires. The leaves only get burnt so far down, leaving the interior and leaf bases untouched, well insulated against the fire’s heat.
The leaves are quite hazardous to one’s health. The edges are sharp as knives, it feels like a bad paper cut when they get you. The ends are sharply pointed and have that ‘invisible’ quality when you’re working with them. You think you’re clear then ‘ouch’ right in the eye!
While on the subject of leaves, there are two varieties of Yakka down this way and the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at their leaves. Their species name describes the leaves when cut across, in cross section. X. semiplana has flat leaves while X. quadrangulata are a slightly squashed square shape with 4 distinct corners. X. semiplana is more common around this way, while X quadrangualta is more common toward the Flinders Ranges.
The flower spike is quite spectacular, often reaching a couple of metres in length. It is bare at its base and for a short way up, then you find the flowers. There are many tiny, 3 petaled cream coloured flowers. Even though it isn’t necessary, fire will often trigger the flowering of Yakkas.
The wood of the spike is very light and usually pretty straight, making it most suitable for making light spears. The base of the stalk is commonly used for making fires with the drill method.
One use of the flowers is to make a sweet drink by soaking the head in water for a while. Sometimes, the flowers are so loaded with nectar that folks have been seen licking them straight off the spike (it’s actually quite good)!
The resin from the Yakka is an indispensable adhesive for the Indigenous folk who have long used it for fixing the heads to spears or repairing container. Unlike some Wattle gums, it’s not good to eat.
Wikipedia has some interesting European uses in its entry for Xanthorroea
- Burnt as an incense in churches.
- A base component for a varnish used on furniture and in dwellings.
- A polish and a coating used on metal surfaces including stoves, tin cans used for storing meat and “brass instruments.”
- A component used in industrial processes associated with “sizing paper, in soap making, perfumery and in manufacturing early gramophone records.”
Yakkas, interesting and spiky!