Born on a Central Australian mission, Peter Latz has made the plants of the desert his life’s work.

Story By Ken Eastwood

In the back corner of Peter Latz’s eight-hectare property on the outskirts of Alice Springs is a fine old ghost gum, its white trunk stark against the red MacDonnell Ranges. “It’s like me,” 74-year-old Peter says with a smile. “Old and decrepit, but still beautiful in its own way.”
It’s easy to compare Australia’s most eminent Central Australian botanist with the cornucopia of desert plants surrounding him. He’s as wiry as a sapling, but as strong as ironwood. Like spinifex, he can be prickly at times and capable of starting a blazing fire with his controversial views. He’s also like some of the plants named after him: Aristida latzii, a tough grass that somehow grows out of solid red rock, or the shrubby wattle Acacia latzii. “It’s a pissy little tree, but then last year it bloomed, and it was magnificent. It was so dense with flowers,” Peter says.

Through a career forged in the heat, dust, ants and flies, this ecologist, author, botanical consultant and historian has become one of the foremost authorities on the medicinal and food uses of desert plants, and revolutionised the way national parks authorities and others think about fire. He’s proved that fire can increase certain bush tucker plants, and can be hugely destructive to others. Harbouring an intense dislike of “wankademics” from Sydney and Canberra, he’s scientifically recorded for the first time more plant species than he can remember, and challenged orthodox views of the ‘noble savage’, believing that over time Aboriginal people dramatically changed the desert landscape to suit themselves and caused the extinction of species. “There’s this false idea that they lived in harmony with each other and with the environment,” he says. “Why would humans coming to Australia be any different than elsewhere in the world?”

For more than 40 years he’s studied and campaigned against the proliferation of introduced buffel grass, favoured by many in the pastoral industry but now declared a weed in South Australia. When talking about such issues he gets a fire in his eyes, his voice crescendos like an ancient mage, and he uses even more expletives than normal. “Buffel’s going to destroy my country,” he bemoans.

This story excerpt is from Issue #105

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2016