Botanical Wednesday: Is everything weird in Australia?

I think I saw this tree in a Dr Seuss book once upon a time. Unfortunately, all the source says about is that it is “typical habitat of the Western Clawless Upside-down Fly, Nothoastia clausa.” That belongs in Dr Seuss, too.

(Also on Sb)


  1. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    My only recent Australian “experience”… Whatever you do don’t watch Snowtown. It’s what nightmares are made of.

  2. jsenoj says

    They’re Xanthorroea. Called ‘yakkas’.

    They grow very slowly, so this could be a couple of centuries old. It’s why you should never buy one with a trunk for your garden – they take too long to grow and if it has a trunk it’s most likely been ripped out of the bush somewhere.

    And they’re no weirder than an American Joshua tree!

  3. John Morales says


    Rev BDC, the film soft-pedals big-time — the film-makers made a point of it out of sensitivity for those affected.

    (The reality was much, much worse)

  4. otrame says

    We have similar plants in South Texas. A really old sotal plant will not be that tall, but looks very much like that. I have one in my yard that is about 22 years old and has a 3 ft. tall trunk.

    At the archaeology lab of the University of Texas at San Antonio we have a pair of sandals made of sotol. They are about 5000 years old and came from a dry cave near the Pecos River.

  5. says

    If I lived in Australia I’d be able to live far enough away from anyone with an ear piercing yappy, dog that constantly follows me while I mow along that annoying fence my neighbors put up to keep their ear piercing yappy dog in their yard.
    Hey… I think I finally found my Endless Thread topic. Hooray!

  6. Sophia Dodds says

    Hey, a… um, grass tree! A huge one… must be incredibly old. Most are about a metre high, little ones are just a tuft of the green spikes protruding from the ground.

    I grew up calling them ‘blackboys’ but that term has, for obvious reasons, fallen out of use. Those flower spikes make great toy swords, and the spiky leaf things have a diamond-shaped profile and are incredibly irritating to stumble into in the dark on a camping trip. Not as bad as most of the other flora around here though, everything in the bush here around Perth is fsm-damned pointy >:|

    We do, however, make up for the pointy veggies by having the prettiest vermin in the world.

  7. otrame says

    Oh, and jsenoj is right. Buying similar plants with tall trunks is like buying elephant ivory. Big cacti are also often ripped out of their natural habitats, often too badly damaged to survive (like Christmas trees, they take a while to show that they are dying). They are usually stolen, often from public property here in Texas.

    So, yes they are cool. Don’t buy them.

  8. Lofty says

    They’re amazing things, adapted to poor soils and rocky terrain with occasional fires to get them to the act of flowering. I grew up near a hill where they were common. The flower spikes when dry make great prickly batons for small children to hit each other with. Ah, the memories.

  9. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    Rev BDC, the film soft-pedals big-time — the film-makers made a point of it out of sensitivity for those affected.

    (The reality was much, much worse)

    So I read. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

    But the film makers did a good job setting the mood / atmosphere. Whether it was correct or not it made it creepy as shit with their really only being a couple creepy scenes.

  10. katkinkate says

    The Queensland variety take 20 years to grow outwards at ground level then grow upwards at less than 1cm a year (about 2/5 of an inch), so I would estimate that one could be around 300 years old. It’s tap root will be metres long as well.

  11. says

    Yes, these were very common in Perth suburbs (in the bushy areas, not in gardens), and in rural areas around Perth. Comment #2 above gives the Wikipedia page link.

    We called these “blackboys”. As others have said, the one in the picture must be very old. Most of the ones I saw were fairly short, usually less than 3 feet high to the bottom of the leaf growth.

    And yes, everything is weird down under.

  12. Suido says

    I have vague recollections of calling them blackboys when very young and living in central Qld. Not so common in the dairy farming areas of Victoria where I spent the rest of my youth.


    And yes, everything is weird down under.

    Sounds like a great name for a genital art exhibition.

  13. John Morales says


    And yes, everything is weird down under.

    Nonsense; everything is weird up over.

    (Of course mammals can lay eggs! Of course swans are black! Of course trees shed their bark and keep their leaves!)

  14. dougpaice says

    Never heard them called “yuccas” we called them blackboys, due to the burnt trunk but that name has fallen into disuse, grass trees are now the most common name. Be careful you confuse them with the Kingia the looks similar, it has drum sticks instead of spears and a different leaf shape. Also it’s not closely related to the Xanthorrhoea, and also happens to be one of my favorite trees (along with baobabs)

    Possibly an example of convergent evolution?

  15. Azuma Hazuki says


    If anyone has ever played Phantasy Star III, Australia is rather like the first few hours of that game, where you would get poisoned by something in more than half of every random encounter.

    The important difference, though, is that Australia-critter poison doesn’t simply stop your wounds from healing. It kills you incredibly quickly by medical standards but agonizingly slowly and painfully from your point of view. Imagine if Rhys dropped dead a few minutes after picking off that first Eindon and you have it…

  16. unclefrogy says

    I have always wanted to landscape a garden with “odd looking” plants like grass trees. I live in so cal and it is possible to grow a wide variety. I took this from the wiki page
    The “trunk” of Xanthorrhoea is a hollow ring of accumulated leaf bases. Nutrient transport is via aerial roots that run down the center.”

    they have a picture of a cross section now that is an amazing adaptation!

    one of the big problems with Joshua in the garden is watering they do not like it very much but they are some times grown they are pretty cold tolerant. They do have a “real” trunk of sorts.

    uncle frogy

  17. paulmurray says

    Oh – Nothoastia clausa.

    Doing a bit of a search:*&s=clau*&show-form=true

    We do have a “Nothoasteia clausa”,

    Whjch is in family NEUROCHAETIDAE – the upside-down flies. So that would be the right one, then.

  18. says

    paulmurray @25:
    Yeah, I did a search for Nothoastia clausa on Google and I only got one hit for, and the rest (2 pages worth) were all of aggregators including PZ’s summary text!

    Nothoasteia clausa appears to be the correct spelling. Your last link is about the only page I’ve found after a quick search that summarises why they’re called upside-down flies — when landed on a vertical surface they always maintain a head-down orientation.

  19. desertfroglet says

    Paul Murray @25

    We do have a “Nothoasteia clausa”

    The photographer is Dave Britton, collection manager for the ento dept at the Australian Museum, so we can probably trust his ID.

  20. desertfroglet says

    There’s an Australian Museum page about unpside-down flies (written by Dave Britton) here, plus more info from CSIRO Ento here.

    The AM pages includes this bit about N. clausa:

    This fly was known from just a single specimen collected in 1980. Despite exhaustive searching, no other specimens could be found. It seemed that the Western Clawless Upside-down fly was very rare indeed.

    In 2001, Dr Gerry Cassis and Dr Toby Schuh of the Australian Museum stumbled across several specimens hiding deep down in the crowns of grass trees. Now that the scientists know to look for the flies in grass trees, more collecting has shown that the species is actually very abundant – not rare at all.

  21. Kylie Sturgess says

    They’re everywhere here.

    We call them grass trees.

    You can get one for $50.

  22. paulmurray says

    “Your last link is about the only page I’ve found after a quick search that summarises why they’re called upside-down flies”

    The Australian Faunal Directory, courtesy of the Australian Biological Resources Survey project at the Department of the Environment. It’s a huge project with contributors from all over the country.

    “The photographer is Dave Britton, collection manager for the ento dept at the Australian Museum, so we can probably trust his ID.”

    I just do computers, and stand back when the scientists do science :) . It’s only a spelling issue on the webpage – ‘eia’ instead of ‘ia’.

    Oh – I should have mentioned: we have another search page

    using Tony Rees’ “taxamatch” algorithm, which knows about common endings. That page finds the name (and its AFD occurrence) no trouble at all.

  23. DLC says

    I think I killed some Elekks near a stand of those in western Nagrand. . . /dumbWoWComment

  24. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Wow, that brought the other Perth lurkers out a bit didn’t it.

    *waves* to other Sandgropers.

    Mind you there’s also an Australian Museum page about drop bears. But the fly one looks fairly legit.

    The grass trees are slow growers, but they do seem to be everywhere around here.

  25. Sophia Dodds says

    @Ariaflame – What, no page on hoop snakes? No links to the Bureau of Roo-powered Transportation?
    … warning signs not to bring babies into dingo country? *ducks*

  26. says

    “Is everything weird in Australia?”

    I lived there for 2 years. The answer is yes. It is a part of what makes it such a great place!

  27. pacomius says

    Drop bears don’t live in grass trees, but I believe they have been known to shelter under them to eat their kill if it happens to be a rainy day

  28. Rich Woods says

    Australia, the land of multitudinous poisonous snakes. No, wait. The spiders killed all the bloody snakes.

  29. gravityisjustatheory says

    “Is everything weird in Australia?”

    No, some things are merely lethal.

  30. ralfmuschall says

    Neither the plant nor the fly is weird.
    The grass in Australia obviously grows on trees because it fears the venomous creepy crawlies on the ground. The fly is not upside-down – Australia is, and the fly is the only living being that is aware of that and corrects the problem.

  31. feralcrj says

    yup, grass trees. they also call em “black boys” (a moniker i had and have a hard time with simply because of my background as a misplaced minnesotan) because the trunks are usually burned black in a fire and the grass atop will still sprout out. the things are awesome and after a trim will often remind me of beaker on the muppets.
    by the way, ive taken to checking your blog regularly now, i miss the sanity of home. now care to explain to me the insanity of home as well, cause i’m very very wary of what i’m seeing from the batcrap crazies on the religious right.

    be well pz, and if you’re ever in western australia…