Aboriginal plant use

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 Aborigines ‘farmed’ the country using burning and tilling so the resources were not used up. Many Australian plants re-grow quickly after a fire; indeed some plants need fire as part of natural regeneration.

More than half of the food eaten by Aborigines came from plants. While fruits, seeds and greens are seasonal, roots can usually be dug up year round and were the most important foods in this region. Replanting was carried out with these more important food varieties.

Most southern fruits were small, including those of the Heath family (Epacridaceae) and Dillon Bush (Nitraria billardieri).

The long roots (rhizomes) of Bracken Fern (Pteridium esculentum) were chewed or beaten out to a sticky starch. There are many native lilies with small tuberous roots which were collected for food - for example Early Nancy (Wurmbea dioica), Chocolate Lily (Dichopogon strictus) and Milkmaids (Burchardia umbellata).

Murnong or Yam-daisy (Microseris lanceolata) was a plentiful and favourite food.

Plants has many other uses besides food. The long leaves of sedges, rushes and lilies were used for baskets and mats, and soaked and beaten to free the fibres to make string. The bark of trees made buckets, dishes and shields; River Red-gum bark was particularly good for making canoes, and scarred 'canoe trees' can still be seen. Some rice-flower shrubs (Pimelea spp.) have such strong fibres on the outside of the stem that they have been called 'bushman's bootlace', and were used by the Aborigines to make fine nets in which to collect Bogong Moths to eat.

Medicines also came from plants native mints (Mentha spp.) were remedies for coughs and colds, and the gum from gum-trees, which is rich in tannin,was used for burns.

The Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra features the Aboriginal Trail - an interpretive walk focussing on plants used by the Australian Aboriginals.

This guide describes just some of the different plants and their traditional uses.

Acacia mearnii (Black Wattle)

Attracts birds and butterflies. Aborigines have many uses for Black Wattles, including wood for clubs, shields, boomerangs and spears, the bark was made into string and also drinking tea can be made which aids indigestion. The gum was used as an adhesive, or when fresh and pale, as a food or drink when mixed with water and nectar.

Acacia melanoxylon (Blackwood)

The wood of Blackwood, being very hard and close-grained, was used in Victoria for spear-throwers and shields; the bark was infused in water to bathe rheumatic joints, and the inner bark was used to make string.

There are more than 1,000 different wattle species in Australia, and many of them were used by the Aborigines. In many areas wattle gum was an important food as well as a cement. Wattle seed is high in protein and carbohydrate and was eaten both green and dry in the arid areas. The Tasmanians ate the green seed and pods of Coast Wattle, Acacia sophorae, and Varnish Wattle, Acacia verniciflua, and wattle blossom was hung in their huts to promote sleep.

Arthropodium strictum (Bulbine Lily)

Food source in the form of tubers, that could be eaten raw or cooked and all year round.

Banksia spp. (Banksias)

The flower-cones were soaked in water in bark or wooden containers to extract the nectar to make sweet drinks. Early settlers called banksias 'honeysuckles'. Some banksias, such as the local Silver Banksia, Banksia marginata, retain the dry flowers on the cones, and Aborigines used these as strainers for drinking water.

Burchardia umbellate (Milkmaids)

Food source in the form of tubers, that could be eaten raw or cooked and all year round.

Caesia calliantha (Blue Grass Lily)

Food source in the form of tubers, that could be eaten raw or cooked and all year round.

Callitris spp. (Native Cypress pines)

Aborigines on the Murray River made a combined canoe pole and fish spear nearly 4 m long from the wood of the Murray Pine, Callitris preissii, called by them Maroong. The resin was also a cement for fastening barbs to spears.

Casuarina and Allocasuarina spp. (She-oaks)

The hard wood of she-oak was much used for making boomerangs, shields and clubs. In Wyrie Swamp, South Australia, archaeologists found a boomerang 10,000 years old, made from she-oak wood. Young shoots were chewed to allay thirst, and young cones were also eaten.

Convolvulus erubescens (Pink (Blushing) Bindweed)

Aborigines used this climber’s root as a source of food and medicine for stomach pain and diarrhea.

Dianella revoluta (Black-anther or Spreading Flax-lily)

Aborigines used the berries as a food source and to obtain blue dye.

Dianella spp. (Flax Lilies)

The fibre in the leaf is very strong. A leaf, split and twisted into a cord, has been found in an Aboriginal burial in central Victoria. This and other Flax-lilies were used for baskets in Tasmania. The berries are blue-purple, and may be poisonous. There is no evidence that they were eaten by Aborigines.

Dicksonia antarctica (Smooth Tree-fern)

The top of the trunk was split open to extract the soft starchy pith. The Tasmanians preferred the Rough Tree-fern, Cyathea australis, because it tasted better than the Smooth Tree-fern. The Smooth Tree-fern is the one which is usually grown in home gardens.

Dodonaea viscosa (Hop-bush)

In Queensland the juice of the root was applied for toothache and cuts; the chewed leaf and juice was put on stonefish and stingray stings and bound up for four to five days.
Einadia nutans (Nodding Saltbush)
This plant was used as food source from its berries and leaves.

Enchylaena tomentosa (Ruby Saltbush)

The tiny red flattened fruits were shaken off the bush and eaten. The small black stone inside was also eaten.

Eucalyptas ovata (Swamp Gum or Bog Gum)

Swamp gums were sometimes used as smoking trees for the preservation of fish and eels when traded over far distances, as well as adding taste.

Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum)

Where holes have been made by insects in the young branches, sap flows out and dries into hard sugary drops which fall to the ground, hence the name 'manna'. Aborigines and early settlers were very fond of it. Other gum-trees may also produce manna, for example Eucalyptus mannifera.
In common with other eucalypts, the wood was used for implements such as shields, and wooden bowls known in Victoria as 'tarnuks'.

Eustrephus latifolius (Wombat Berry)

The roots of this climber are edible and it is highly likely that they were eaten by Aborigines. The fruits do not seem to have been eaten.

Exocarpos cupressiformis (Cherry Ballart, Native Cherry)

The fruits of the Native Cherries have a succulent base with a hard seed on top. There are several species, but this one is the most common. The wood was used for spearthrowers and for bull-roarers (a musical instrument), and the sap was applied to snakebites. The native cherries are hard to cultivate because they are parasitic on the roots of other trees.

Hedycarya angustifolia (Austral Mulberry)

The most important use of this mountain shrub was as straight sticks for fire-drills which were twirled between the hands while resting on another flat piece of wood, often the dry flowering stalk of the grass-tree. Within two minutes fire could be produced. The sticks were so highly prized that they were traded from tribe to tribe. The fruits resemble a yellow mulberry, but are not edible.

Indigofera australis (Austral Indigo)

One of the many different plants that were crushed and put into pools to kill or stun fish so that they could be easily caught. Among other plants used in different parts of Australia were the leaves and bark of several wattles and gum-trees, and the Wild Indigo, Tephrosia purpurea.

Lomandra filiformis (Wattle Mat-rush)

Aborigines drank the nectar and used the fibre for basket making.

Lomandra longifolia (Spiny-headed Mat-rush)

The long smooth leaves were used to make baskets and mats. By beating and soaking the leaves, fibre was separated to make string for net-bags. The flowers provided nectar. This plant is still used at Lake Condah to make eel-traps and at Lake Tyers for baskets.

Marsilea drummondii (Nardoo)

An unusual fern which grows in shallow seasonal waters. When the water dried up, the hard spore-cases were collected. They were broken up on grindstones, and the spores were separated from the outer cases. The spores swell when moistened, and were made into damper. Although used in drier areas such as Cooper's Creek, Nardoo is said to have been largely a standby food when other things were in short supply. The explorers Burke and Wills found that a diet of Nardoo alone was not enough to sustain life.

Mentha australis (River Mint)

Aborigines used the leaves for flavour and medical purposes, such as colds, coughs, cramps and as insect repellent.

Microseris lanceolata (Murnong or Yam-daisy)

This small perennial plant was the favourite food of the Aborigines of central and western Victoria. It has a radish-shaped tuber which is renewed each year. In the spring the plant forms a yellow flower-head like a dandelion, and in the summer the leaves die off and the tuber becomes dormant. The tubers were cooked in baskets in an earth oven, producing a dark sweet juice which was much liked. Once a common plant, Murnong became scarce due to grazing by sheep.

Pelargonium rodneyanum (Magenta Stork’s-bill)

Aborigines used the nutritious and starchy taproots as a food cource.

Phragmites australis (Common Reed)

The tall bamboo-like stems were highly prized for spears and were also cut into short lengths to make necklaces or to stick through the septum of the nose as an ornament. The leaves were used to make bags and baskets.

Poa labillardierli (Common Tussock-grass)

Aborigines used the fibrous leaves as string for making nets, bags, baskets and mats.

Rubus hillii (Native Raspberry)

There are several native raspberries, all of which were eaten. The Mountain Raspberry, Rubus gunnianus, is found only on Tasmanian mountains, while the Small-leaf Bramble, Rubus parvifolius, is widespread in drier forests.

Solanum laciniatum (Kangaroo Apple)

One of the Kangaroo Apples of eastern Australia, the egg-shaped orange fruits were eaten only when they were ripe enough to fall from the bush. In Tasmania, they were picked earlier and buried in sand-heaps to ripen. They can be poisonous if eaten unripe. The fruits contain hard small stones as well as seeds. Aborigines attributed this plant with contraceptive properties. The fruit provides food for birds.

Thysanotus patersonii (Twining Fringe Lily)

Food source in the form of tubers, that could be eaten raw or cooked and all year round.

Triglochin procera (Water-ribbons)

The tubers were an important food source for the Aborigines and were either roasted or eaten raw.

Typha spp. (Cumbungi or Bulrushes)

The underground horizontal roots (rhizomes) were steamed in an earth oven, the outer layer was stripped off, and the starchy fibrous inner part was tied in a simple knot. This was then chewed to remove the starch, which tastes like potato. The remaining fibre was dried, soaked, scraped with mussel shells, and then rolled on the thigh to give very strong string for making large nets which were used to catch ducks and fish. Finer string was made from the leaves. The young shoots which appear in early summer were eaten raw.

Xanthorrhoea spp. (Grass Trees)

The bases of the leaves are sweet and nutty, and the heart of the stem was also eaten. Nectar was collected from the tall spike of flowers with a sponge made of stringybark. The dry flower-stems of smaller species were used for spears, and those of this larger species were used to make fire, as well as containing large edible grubs. At the base of the plant globules of a hard waterproof resin were collected and used as a cement to fasten barbs in spears or stone axes to handles. The tough leaves were used as knives to cut meat.

 

This information was sourced from the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Further resources:

  • Gott, B., 1991 Victorian Koorie Plants: some plants used by Victorian Koories for food, fibre, medicines and implements. Yangennanock Women's Group, Aboriginal Keeping Place, Hamilton, Victoria.
  • Issacs, J., 1987 Bush Food. Weldons, Sydney.
  • Low, T., 1988 Wild Food Plants of Australia. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.