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Plants of the Murray–Darling Basin

The Murray–Darling Basin has many different ecosystems and is home to a large variety of native plants. These include:

  • aquatic species that need to live permanently in water
  • floodplain plants that need water but can survive several years of drought
  • desert plants that need very little water.

All of the native plants contribute to the health of the Basin.

How native plants benefit the environment

Diverse and healthy native plant populations are vital for the health of rivers and wetlands. Different plants have many functions in the waterways, such as:

  • filtering water to keep it clean
  • reducing the amount of salt in soil and water
  • cycling nutrients through the ecosystem
  • stabilising the surface of the soil, preventing wind and water erosion
  • providing habitats for other native plants and animals
  • minimising bank erosion along watercourses.

Plants provide shelter, food and shade for a range of animals. They also store carbon dioxide, preventing it from going into the Earth’s atmosphere and causing further warming.

For thousands of years, native plants have provided food, materials and medicines for the First Nations people of the Basin.

Many of the Basin’s wetlands are Ramsar-listed, meaning they are internationally recognised as being representative, rare or unique, and important for conservation. Ramsar wetlands also provide opportunities for sustainable tourism, boosting the local economy.

Nardoo on Narran Lakes in transition as rains arrive
Nardoo on Narran Lakes in transition as rains arrive.

Riverine forests

Forests on or near a river are known as riverine forests. They mainly contain river red gums, and some river oaks as well as smaller plant species like grasses and herbs. They are found on floodplains and need frequent flooding to thrive.

Floodplain woodlands

Floodplain woodlands depend on flooding to keep growing, but they are found on slightly higher sites than riverine forests and are flooded less often. The floodwaters refresh the water in the soil and filter down to the water below ground level. This is known as groundwater.

The trees that grow in floodplain woodlands are mainly black box and coolabah, with some river red gums. Some parts of these woodlands are dominated by species such as:

  • yapunyah
  • river willow
  • river cooba
  • silver wattle
  • burgan.

Floodplain woodland covers large areas of the northern and southern riverine plains, as well as the floodplains of intermittent rivers (those that occasionally stop flowing) in the west of the Basin.

River red gum on Little Rushy Swamp in the Barmah-Millewa Forest.
River red gum on Little Rushy Swamp in the Barmah-Millewa Forest.

Shrublands

Shrublands are found in small areas along some rivers, usually on floodplains and in semi-arid areas away from waterways. The plants found in shrublands on the floodplain are generally adapted to hot, dry conditions, and grow in areas that are rarely flooded.

Typical floodplain shrubs in the western regions of the Basin include:

  • nitre goosefoot
  • dillon bush
  • golden goosefoot
  • black roly poly
  • old man saltbush.

Lignum is the main floodplain and wetland shrub species in the Basin. As lignum grows on floodplains and along river banks, it has adapted floods as well as hot and dry conditions. It needs some flooding to grow and reproduce.

Tea tree species, and to a lesser extent bottlebrushes, grow on the banks of fast-flowing rivers (riparian shrublands). Different species cope differently with flooding and strong water flow.

Grasslands

Many species of native grasses have evolved or adapted to the different environments in the Basin.

Grasses vary widely in appearance and growth, and how they respond to flooding and drying. There are several different types of grassland in the Basin.

  • Extensive tussock grasslands of Warrego grass, cane grass and curly Mitchell grass, found throughout the north and west of the Basin.
  • Tall grasslands of common reed (phragmites), found throughout the Basin, mostly in the channels of lowland rivers. They grow extensively on floodplains of eastern rivers in the Basin.
  • Mat-forming grasses grasslands that grow on the heavy clays of riverbanks of most western rivers. Sometimes there are extensive grasslands of mat-forming grasses on individual rivers, such as water couch on the Gwydir floodplain and rat’s tail couch on parts of the Murray and Darling floodplains.
  • Grasslands of spiny mudgrass, known as moira grass in Victoria, are significant in the Barmah–Millewa Forest on the River Murray.

Sedgelands and rushlands

Sedges and rushes are non-woody plants that grow densely in areas where there is a lot of water, such as wetlands, floodplains and rivers.

  • Some sedges and rushes, such as common spikerush, are naturally widespread and common, though they rarely grow across large areas.
  • Some species, such as cumbungi, have become widespread across the Basin in habitats because of changes in the river systems after Europeans came to the area.

The presence of livestock has significantly changed where sedgeland species are now found. The sedge species that livestock eat, particularly tall spikerush, now mainly grow in protected areas and deeper water billabongs. Those sedges that livestock don’t eat are becoming more widespread.

Giant rush at Moira Lake
Giant rush at Moira Lake.

Herblands

Herbs are another major group of plants that live in water-dependent environments of the Basin. Like grasses, sedges and rushes, herbs are non-woody plants. They are seed-bearing and die down to the ground after flowering. They are diverse in their form and habitat requirements.

Herblands develop in environments where water has receded after flooding, such as floodplains, riverine wetlands, river banks and the shorelines of large lakes and wetlands.

Herblands may occur within other types of vegetation communities, such as forests or wetlands. Many herb species are short-lived, germinating and maturing quickly, then setting seed. Other species are longer-lived and can persist through different phases.

Where different herb species live depends on the duration, timing and depth of flood events.

Find out more about native vegetation

Updated: 24 Sep 2020