Food, tools and medicine: 5 native plants that illuminate deep Aboriginal knowledge

To honour Australia’s history, from 18 to 26 January, Education – RiAus will be exclusively publishing content by and about First Nations Australians. These resources will look back at our favourite pieces from 2020 and also provide new content and resources for you to use with your STEM students.

We honour and value the scientific knowledge and contributions of First Australians as the First Scientists, the First Astronomers and the First STEM Educators for over 60,000 years. From their insight into the stars and weather patterns to their management of bushfires, we still benefit from their practices today and need to ensure that all of our students are aware of this.

Aboriginal knowledge is often seen as “in the past”, fixed and stagnant. Such tropes deny the ability to continuously adapt and innovate.

This article describes the features and uses of native Australian plants and the importance of this knowledge to societies. It is best suited to Biology and Earth Science students in years 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 who are learning about co-dependent ecosystems and the need for stability, as well as the use of Earth’s resources. The article demonstrates the importance of Aboriginal knowledge to meet the needs of societies and understand local natural environments.

 

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Seed pod from a black kurrajong tree that has opened to show orange seeds
Black kurrajong. Credit: Shutterstock

Over countless millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have harnessed the tremendous potential of plants, ingeniously using them for medicinesnutrition, to express our culture and to develop innovative technologies.

But as I learn more about First Peoples’ plant knowledge, I’m also better understanding the broader Australian community’s failure to recognise the depth and breadth of our expertise.

Aboriginal people, our culture and deep knowledges are often seen as “in the past”, fixed and stagnant.

Damaging perceptions which cast us as lesser and posit us as a homogenous peoples, who were limping towards inevitable extinction before the arrival of a “superior” race, still abound. Such tropes deny our dynamic place in the present day, and our ability to continuously adapt and innovate.

Below I’ve listed five of my favourite indigenous plants and the multiple ways Aboriginal people used them, and continue to do so.

These plants are examples from my recent publication exploring plant use, and highlight our deep knowledge and holistic approaches to ecological management.

1. Spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)

Spiny-headed mat-rush. Credit: Shutterstock

Spiny-headed mat-rush is a large tussocky plant found throughout southeastern Australia.

The Wurundjeri people particularly favour this plant for weaving cultural items such as necklaces, headbands, girdles, baskets, mats and bags for carrying foods, as well as for making technologies such as eel traps and hunting nets.

Its seeds are high in protein. They can be collected and pounded into a bread mix, with the core of the plant and the base of the leaves eaten as a vegetable.

Many diverse Aboriginal peoples use the roots to treat bites and stings. The caterpillars of several butterflies, such as the Symmomus Skipper, also rely on this plant for food and habitat.

2. Wallaby grass

There are around 30 types of wallaby grass in Australia. Native grasslands were once the most extensive habitat of Victoria’s western plains, but are now the most endangered plant community.

A stalk of wallaby grass showing seeds falling
Wallaby grass. John Tann/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Grasslands provide food and habitat for a huge diversity of fauna, particularly birds, such as the peregrine falcon, whistling kite and Australian kestrels. Many animals, such as the legless lizard, little whip snake and fat-tailed dunnart, were once commonplace, but are now scarce in this endangered ecosystem.

Wallaby grass seeds make an excellent bread by pounding them into flour. The leaves and stem are also used to make cultural items, such as nets for fishing and hunting.

It’s also incredibly hardy – highly tolerant to frost, heat and drought, and requiring no fertilisers and little water. And it makes an excellent lawn, controlling erosion and weeds.

The small yellow flowers of the Bulbine lily
Bulbine lily. Credit: Shutterstock

3. Bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa)

In summer, bulbine lily dies back to a dormant bulb, before re-shooting in late autumn. In spring, it displays vibrant yellow flowers.

Bulbine lilies can be found in all states except Western Australia, growing wild in tandem with milkmaids and chocolate lilies in the few areas of Victoria’s undisturbed remnant vegetation.

It’s considered the sweetest tasting of all edible root plants and is available year-round. You can find a plump, round, cream-coloured storage organ (a type of underground stem) under its stalk, which can be eaten after being roasted. Bulbine lily is also nutritious, a good source of calcium and iron.

4. Black kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)

Aboriginal peoples from many diverse groups favour the fibrous kurrajong bark for making string for fishing lines, nets and bags, as well as body adornments such as headbands.

Flowers turn to fruit in the form of leathery pods. These pods contain highly nutritious yellow seeds, which contain around 18% protein and 25% fat, and high levels of magnesium and zinc.

Black kurrajong. Credit: Luis Fernández García/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

To eat the seeds, you first must remove toxic yellow hairs surrounding them. They can be eaten raw and roasted, and have a pleasantly nutty flavour. The young roots of this tree also make an excellent food source and can provide water.

5. Black sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis)

Black sheoak. John Robert McPherson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Favouring dry conditions, black sheoak is native to Queensland, Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, and can grow up to eight metres high. It flowers in spring, with either rusty-brown spikes or red flowers that develop into cones.

Its seeds are an important food source for many native birds, including parrots and cockatoos.

Diverse groups of Aboriginal peoples use sheoaks for various purposes. The shoots and cones can be eaten, and sheoak wood can be used to fashion boomerangs, shields, clubs and other cultural implements because the wood is both strong and resists splitting and chipping.

In fact, the earliest evidence of boomerangs, found in the Wyrie Swamp in South Australia, were made from various sheoak species, and were dated at 10,000 years old.

The Conversation
Authored by Zena Cumpston, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Years: 2, 3, 4, 6, 7

Topics:

Biological Sciences: Ecosystems, Living Things

Earth and Space Sciences: Renewable/non-renewable Resources

Additional: Careers, Technology, Engineering.

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences: Interdependence and Ecosystems, Diversity and Evolution

Earth and Space Sciences: The Earth’s Surface