the article below by Les Robinson very interesting. This is an area I
would like to explore in increasing detail.
Aboriginal Uses of Plants Around Sydney
- Les Robinson
While looking for historical references to Sydney plants for "Field
Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney", I read most of the early
journals of botanically literate early Sydney settlers and explorers
(of which there were a surprising number). This article is based upon
The Aboriginal tribes around Sydney were virtually exterminated or
moved on early in the era of European settlement. Aborigines still
living around the region retain an oral record of plant use, although
it has rarely been put into writing. Hence almost our only data on
plant use comes from the historical records of early European settlers
who observed, but rarely had intimate contact with Aborigines.
It is my assertion, (not backed up by any kind of historical,
scientific or anthropological evidence, but logical nevertheless!),
that Aborigines, living in intimate connection with the land for many
thousands of years, can be reasonably expected to have used VIRTUALLY
EVERYTHING that was useable to them. I can say this because in only a
few years, by casual experimentation (ceaseless tasting, pulling,
testing, etc..) I have come to learn a lot about the local bush...how
much more would Aborigines have known!
So this article is about Sydney region plants known to be useful
and hence likely to have been used by Aborigines.
The fruits of Sydney plants, seasonal, small and insipid for the
most part, cannot have been a significant source of nutrition for
Aborigines. Nevertheless, because of their visibility they are the
best recorded of the local food plants. They include the well known
and much written-about fruits, as well as some more obscure ones:
Brachychiton spp. (seeds roasted)
Canavalia marina (bean roasted)
Carpobrotus glaucescens, commonly know as "pig face", is found
along coastal dunes of eastern Australia.
The fruits of Persoonia
species are edible but not particularly palatable. This is
In the research for my book I never uncovered a reference to Aborigines
eating Planchonella australis fruits, even though they are the
fleshiest and best eating of the local fruits. Nor did I find
references to Eupomatia, Syzygium, Schizomeria fruits, or
several other common rainforest fruits which are certainly
edible...this points to the paucity of records and indicates how
scanty our knowledge really is. Even a normally toxic plant like
Solanum aviculare was eaten by Victorian Aborigines after
roasting: was it eaten here? We'll probably never know.
This brings up another issue: how many plants were regular foods
and how many were emergency foods, consumed only in the lean and
desperate times? A great many of the foods in this list must have been
in that category.
There is no evidence that the famous 'Botany Bay greens' were
consumed by Sydney Aborigines (Tetragonia tetragonioides, Apium
prostratum, Atriplex cinerea). In fact there is not a lot of
evidence that greens were all that important to Aborigines. There are
records that they roasted a few species:
||Young flowering stems, at Port Macquarie
||Leafy expanding fruits roasted, in northern Australia
||Young stems, in Tasmania
Interestingly, it appears that Sydney Aborigines did not eat the
cabbage of Livistona australis (according to James Backhouse),
a rich source for European settlers who did appreciate their greens.
Roots, Tubers, Bulbs etc
Many Liliaceae, Orchidaceae and other families have species with
edible tubers and these would have been common foodstuffs for coastal
Aborigines. They are not large: you'd have to collect a lot to feed a
Cymbonotus lawsonianus Dichopogon fimbriatus
Ipmoea spp. (I.batatas is the sweet potato)
|Marsdenia flavescens (by Aborigines on the Hawkesbury
River..but not suitable for Europeans)
While the preceding were minor food sources which you could live
without, the following were major sources of starch, critical to the
survival of coastal Aborigines.
||Bungwall fern - rhizome; all year, but probably best in winter
||Bracken fern - rhizome; all year, but probably best in winter
||Burrawang - seeds; in winter
Note that these are all, at best, winter foods...does this explain why
Aborigines were roasting fibrous and unpalatable Doryanthes
stems in spring?
The seeds of Burrawang,
Macrozamia communis, require treatment to remove toxins prior
The seeds of some grass species were ground into a paste and
roasted in the ground to make a kind of damper, with a much higher
fibre content that the doughy British version!
Interestingly, the pollen of Typha spp. (which occurs in great
abundance in summer), is cooked in the same way and eaten in other
countries. I was not able to find a record of this happening here.
Canoes were made from the thick fibrous bark of several species,
carefully cut away in whole sheets. There are records of the following
local species being used.
Rope and String
Many local climbers have strong, fibrous stems useful as ropes
without further treatment.
||Recorded as a rope for climbing, by looping around both the
trunk and the climber
Flagellaria indica is our own Sydney cane...Aborigines in Arnhem
Land used thin strips of stem to bind baskets and sew together
sections of canoe hulls. We don't know if or how local Aborigines used
the cane, but it is inconceivable that such a useful substance was not
The leaves of Gymnostachys anceps are also fabulously
strong... there are records of their use as string by Europeans, but
not by Aborigines.
The following were used for twine, nets and net-bags.
The bark and leaves of various plants were used as 'fish poisons'
to stun fish in waterholes, making them float to the surface and easy
||Species such as A.longifolia, A.implexa...but many
other species could have been used. All are rich in tannin, the
presumed active agent
||Hunter River and in Queensland
||Fibres soaked in this before making into string
Interestingly, there are few records of Aborigines anywhere in
Australia using the aromatic plants of the families Myrtaceae,
Rutaceae or Sapindaceae (the pinnate-leaved members of Dodonaea)
in the same way that we use penetrating aromatic oils, as lung and
nasal decongestants and anti-bacterials (tea-tree oil is the classic
example). This is surprising, for these are plants are very
conspicuous for their odours.
I was able to uncover records of only 12 Sydney plants used
medicinally by Aborigines, and_most of these uses are by Aborigines
other than those around Sydney. This is not a great number, and again
points to the poverty of our written records. These are:
||"embrocation made from bark" for skin diseases
||Leaves used as skin disinfectant, in Arnhem Land
||Steamed and eaten as a purgative, in Tasmania
||Crushed leaves used for headaches
||Leaf juice rubbed on marine stings, in Queensland
||Young fronds roasted and consumed as a tonic after illness
||It was an important medicinal plant amongst Aborigines. The
leaves were chewed for toothache, used as a poultice for stonefish
and stingray wounds, and soaked in water and used as a sponge to
relieve fever. A liquid made from soaking the roots was used for
open cuts and sores
||Holes made in trunk and filled with water, later extracted and
drunk as an intoxicant, in NSW
||Leaves chewed for sore gums, probably in Queensland
||Juice from young stems used against insect bites, probably in
||Leaves sucked at Jervis Bay: for pleasure or medicine?
Some Historical Records
of a few of the more important species
"Leaf bases, young flowers and shoots eaten in spring and after
fires (not at Jervis Bay). Flower stalk of ssp.concava
considered better than ssp.resinosa for making a fishing
spear. When dry used for fire lighting." - at Jervis Bay.
"Sap (from yellow variety only) used as gum, generally to secure
a bunding of plant fibre. Examples of such usage are the fixing of
prongs and points to fishing spears, and fish hooks to their lines.
May be removed as a powder from leaf bases by beating them;
sometimes found as a hardened knob on northern side of a tree, where
it has been exuded by the sun's heat." (Surgeon White's journal,
Xanthorrhoea species were important for making a
range of tools and weapons.
"Their spears are made of a kind of cane which grows out of the
tree that produces the yellow gum; they are ten to twelve feet long,
pointed, and sometimes barbed, with a piece of the same cane or the
teeth of a fish. These they throw, with the assistance of the short
stick already mentioned which has a shell made fast to the end of it
with the yellow gum." (Surgeon Whlte's journal, 1788).
"'The Yellow Resin Tree'....resin, the properties of which vie
with the most fragrant balsams...Perfectly soluble in spirit of
wine, but not in water, nor even In essential oil of
turpentine...With respect to its medicinal properties Mr White has
found it, in many cases, a good pectoral medicine, and very
balsamic...The plant...seems to be perfectly unknown to botanists,
but Mr White has communicated no specimens by which its genus or
even class could be determined." (J. E. Smith's appendix to White's
"The bases of the inner leaves of the grass-tree are not to be
despised by the hungry. The aborigines beat off the heads of these
singular plants by striking them about the top of the trunk with a
large stick; then they stript off the outer leaves and cut away the
inner ones, leaving about an inch and a half of the white tender
portion joining the trunk; this portion they ate raw or roasted, and
it is far from disagreeable in flavour, having a nutty taste,
slightly balsamic." (James Backhouse, 1843, describing usage in
"In 1825, when Captain Smith, of the 'Caledonia', was at Western
Port, he discovered a quantity of it [the resin], and, by boiling it
with oil, made a very good and cheap composition for covering the
bottom of his vessel, instead of pitch." (Daniel Bunce, Travels with
Dr Leichhardt, 1859).
The large nuts are poisonous until soaked in water for several
days. When crushed a high quality starch Is produced, said to resemble
arrowroot. It was a staple food for Aborigines and was eaten by early
settlers near Braidwood, NSW. Available mainly in winter. Aborigines
prepared it by cutting it into slices and washing in water for several
The NSW Medical Gazette of 1871 recorded that a Henry Moss writes
to the editor to inform him that he won a bronze medal and diploma
from the Paris Exhibition for a sample of arrowroot manufactured from
the Burrawang nut...pounded in tubs of water, roughly strained to
remove debris from nut..strained through fine cheese cloth...liquid
allowed to stand for 48 hours in a long cask, plenty of fresh water
being added in the interval...spike holes in the cask within a few
inches of the bottom allowed the water to be drawed off without
disturbing the sediment in any way...After draining and re-adding pure
water several times, until the (poisonous) oil disappeared, then the
arrowroot formed a cake at the bottom...dried in the sun and reduced
fine by rolling. 'Equal to any commercial arrowroot..l think it would
be first rate for a company to go into the affair. He believed the
Aborigines chief food was this nut, pounded up and then placed on a
sheet of bark under a gentle fall of water for two days (to remove the
'pernicious' oil). [Vol 2, 1871-72, Sydney, p88 (1871)1.
Pteridium esculenlum/Blechnum indicum
Consumption of Pteridium esculenlum would be discouraged
today because it is considered to contain a human carcinogen, but it
once formed a staple for Aborigines around Sydney. Blechnum indicum
was also consumed around Sydney. The white starchy centre of the
rhizome can be eaten raw and is quite acceptable to a European taste.
The following descriptions relate to Pteridium, but the Mahroot
excerpt may also relate to Blechnum, which was once found in
abundance in the swampy eastern suburbs.
"The Aborigines roast this root in the ashes, peel off its black
skin with their teeth, and eat it with their roasted kangaroo, &c.
in the same manner as Europeans eat bread." He also notes that
prolonged use induces weakness. (J. Backhouse p.xxxix - esculent
Plants of Tasmania).
Mahroot was an aborigine born at Cook's River and living at La
Perouse who was called to give evidence to the NSW Leg. Council
C'ttee on the Condition of the Aborigines in 1845.
What did you live upon [before the whites came]?
Mahroot - Generally on the sea coast fish and the fern root.
The Chairman - What clothing used the black fellows to have before
they used to come into the town to the whites, what did they have to
Mahroot - Sometimes they had tea tree (Melaleuca) bark, and
sometimes Kangaroo skins from foreign parts..[ie away from the
Roasted in ashes "a staple, eaten in greater quantities when
fish were scarce"- at Jervis Bay.
Oct 1788, William Bradley wrote "The fern and some other roots
they prepare by moistening and beating between two stones a
considerable time before they use it."
This article is a reproduction of a paper presented
at the SGAP 17th Biennial Seminar, Robert Menzies College, Sydney, 27
September to 1 October 1993.
Les Robinson is the author of the "Field Guide to the Native Plants
of Sydney", a comprehensive and fully-illustrated reference that fits
easily into a back pack. He has been a cartoonist and an environmental
activist and has not yet died of poisoning from eating anything he has
come across in the bush!
plants for bush medicine & other uses.
Australian bush medicine.
(anecdotal or ascribed)
natural source of
methyl cinnamate, possible anti-carcinogen
fruit source of vitamin C, anti-oxidant
Native pepper (leaf
anti-arthritic, rubifaciant, anti-fungal
Sundry fruits, eg
C, organic acids
carbohydrate, low GI, factor K induction
potentiates vitamin C action
||Red ash (Alphitonia excelsa)
Headache vine (Clematis microphylla)
Rock fuchsia bush (Eremophila)
Liniment tree (Melaleuca symphyocarpa)
Tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
Snakevine (Tinospora smilacina)
|Bathe with crushed leaves in water
Crushed leaves inhaled
Leaf decoction drunk
Crushed leaves rubbed on head
Fruit pulp rubbed on head
Mashed stems wound around head
||Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon)
Fuchsia bushes (Eremophila)
Tea trees (Melaleuca)
River mint (Mentha australis)
Great morinda (Morinda citrifolia)
|Decoction drunk or applied as wash
Crushed leaves inhaled
Ripe fruit eaten
||Turpentine bush (Beyeria lechenaultii)
Kapok tree (Cochlospermum fraseri)
Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon)
Red river gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
Tea tree (Melaleuca viridiflora)
|Leaf decoction taken
Bark and flower decoction drunk
External wash of boiled leaves
Steamed leaves inhaled
Bath of crushed leaves in water
||Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon)
Eucalypt bark (Eucalypt)
Cluster fig (Ficus racemosa)
Sacred basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Native raspberries (Rubus)
Bark infusion drunk
Root infusion drunk
Leaf infusion drunk
||Billygoat weed (Ageratum)
Tree orchid (Dendrobium affine)
Spike rush (Eleocharis dulcis)
Paperbark tea trees (Melaleuca)
Cocky apple (Planchonia careya)
|Crushed plant applied
Bulb sap dabbed on cuts
Decaying plant bound to wounds
Bark wrapped as a bandage
Bark infusion poured into wounds
ACHES AND PAINS
||Northern black wattle (Acacia auriculiformis)
Beach bean (Canavilia rosea)
Rock fuchsia bush (Eremophila freelingii)
Beaty leaf (Calophyllum inophullum)
|Root decoction applied
Mashed root infusion rubbed on
Wash with leaf decoction
Rub with crushed nut and ochre
||Nipan (Capparis lasiantha)
Native hop (Dodonaea viscosa)
Beach convolvulus (Ipomoea pes-caprae)
Snakevine (Tinospora smilacina)
Peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifida)
|Whole plant infusion applied
Chewed leaves bound to sting
Heated leaf applied
Root poultice applied
Heated leaves pressed on sting
||Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon)
Konkerberry (Carissa Ianceolata)
Beach bean (Canacalia rosea)
Tick-weed (Cleome viscosa)
Stinging tree (Dendrocnide moroides)
|Bathe in bark infusion
Oily sap rubbed as liniment
Mashed root infusion rubbed in
Boiled leaves and bark rubbed in
Patient beaten with leaves
||Ironwood (Acacia melanoxylon)
Green plum (Buchanania obovata)
Regal birdflower (Crotalaria cunninghamii)
Emu apple (Owenia acidula)
Fan flower (Scaevola sericea)
|Root decoction administered
Infusion of inner bark applied
Sap or leaf decoction given
Wood decoction applied
Fruit juice applied
||River mangrove (Aegiceras corniculatum)
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon)
Native hop (Dodonaea viscosa)
Lady apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)
|Leaf decoction applied
Root decoction poured into ears
Boiled root juice applied
Fruit pulp applied
||Green plum (Buchanania obovata)
Denhamia (Denhamia obscura)
Supplejack (Flagellaria indica)
Pemphis (Pemphis acidula)
Quinine berry (Petalostigma pubescens)
|Tooth plugged with shredded wood
Tooth plugged with inner bark
Benumbing stem chewed
Burning twig applied
Fruits held in mouth
were used to bind stones to handles as well
as wood to wood in some spear throwers.
which come from certain plants, become
soft when heated and very hard when cooled, that is, are thermoplastic. Resins are
obtained from Porcupine Grass (Triodia
species) and Grass Trees (Xanthorrhea
Gums were also used as adhesives. However its use
is limited by the fact that gum swells and shrinks depending on humidity. Gums are
obtained from a number of trees including wattles and eucalypts.
Plants used as foods and medicines in Aboriginal
When Europeans arrived in Australia, Aborigines ate a
balanced diet made up of seasonal fruits, nuts, roots, vegetables, meat and
fish.Foods varied from area to area depending on
availability, season and the preference of the people. In some, warmer parts of Australia plants made up
about 65-70% of the people’s diet, however, in colder areas plants ma de up about 30% of
the diet. It was the women who collected the plant food. Plants included fruit, seeds, nuts and the green parts
of plants, which were only available at certain times of the year. Roots, tubers,
corms and bulbs could be dug all year round. Gum was also eaten at any time of the
year. Aboriginal groups in many parts of Australia used fire
to keep the bush open and to allow the growth of new seedlings. Many Australian
plants re-grow quickly after fire.
In Arnhem Land, Queensland and the Kimberleys, many
tropical trees bear fruits and seeds; these include Fig (Ficus
species) and Macadamia nuts. Yams (Dioscorea
species) were important root vegetables.
In central Australia, where water is scarce, there are many fewer plants. The Aborigines in these areas harvested seeds of native grasses and wattles such as Mulga ( Acacia aneura), and the seed
of the Coolabah tree (Eucalyptus
microtheca). Fruits of the variety of ‘bush tomatoes’ (Solanum
species) , Quandong or Native Peach, Native Plum andDesert Fig (Ficus
platypoda) were eaten. Roots eaten in central Australia included the Desert Yam(Ipomoea
In the southern parts of Australia the most important
foods were roots such as those of the Bracken Fern (Pteridium
esculentum) which was chewed or beaten to obtain a sticky starch.
Many native lilies such as the Fringe Lily (Thysanotus tuberosus)
have small tuberous roots which were collected for food. Murnong
or Yamdaisy (Microseris lanceolata) was plentiful, favourite food. The fruits of some plants were eaten including the Native Cherry (Exocarpus
cupressiformis), Geebung (Persoonia
pinifolia ), Wild Raspberry (Billardiera scandens) and Alpine Pepper (Drimys
xerophilia ). The nectar of certain flowers was sucked or used to make sweet drinks. Flowers used for this purpose included those of
Grevillia species and
The seeds of many grasses were ground and
baked while the seeds of some wattles were roasted and eaten whole. The spores of Nardoo (Marsilea
drummondii),an aquatic fern, were eaten raw.
Bulrush, also known as cumbungi (Typha
species), was a useful food along the Murray-Darling river system.
Plants used as Medicines
Many plants provided medicines. Very little
preparation was required. Leaves were bruised, roots or bark pounded to use as poultices. To
be taken internally the chemical in the plant material were extracted using hot water.
Many Australian plants such as tea - trees, eucalypts, boronia and mints are rich in
aromatic oils. These oils are very useful intreating respiratory illnesses.
Example of plants used in medicine:
The juice and crushed leaves of the Australian Bugle (Ajuga
australis) were used by Aborigines in northern NSW to cure sores and ulcers.
In WA an infusion of the roots of the Prickly
spinescens) was drunkto ease stomach aches.
The young leaves of the Broad-leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca
quinquenervia) were chewedas a treat for head colds. They were brewed in warm
water to make a liquid which was helpful in treating headaches and general illness.
The leaves of mint bushes (Prostanthera
species) were crushed and placed on the temples to relieve headaches.
Inhaling the vapour from crushed Eucalyptus leaves
could clear the head.
Rheumatism cures included cunjevoi juice, which is also recommeded
to relieve the pain induced by the leaves of stinging tree (Dendrocnide,
a member of the stinging nettle family). The stinging tree leaves
themselves have also been used - I can't help wondering (having been
stung more than once) if this was a genuine cure or a means to stop
people from complaining about their rheumatism.
Various Eucalyptus species, the related Melaleuca, plus the native
Hibiscus and a few other species were used to relieve symptoms of
coughs and colds.
Headaches were cured by various means, but perhaps sometimes the
sufferer would prefer to keep the headahce. Cribb and Cribb report
that the leaves of a climbing plant (Clematis glycinoides) was crushed
and vigorously sniffed. The result is a pungent smell and an
'unexpected burning sensation in the nasal passages. Headaches are
soon forgotten as the patient wonders whether the top of his head has
been blown off.' A gentler cure was the inner bark of the bat's wing
coral tree (Erythrina vespertilio).
Sap from the vine Flagellaria indica was used to relieve sore eyes.
Diarrhoea was treated by eating the pseudo-bulbs of an orchird
(Cymbidium madidum), native rasberry (Rubus) leaves, the gum of
eucalypts or the root (after soaking in hot water) of the shrub Grewia
Snake-bite was treated in some areas by a poultice from a coolibah
tree (the coolibah of 'Waltzing Matilda' fame - Eucalyptus microtheca).
Also used for this purpose plus fomentation for bites of stingrays,
spiders etc. were the leaves of a native convolvulus Ipomoea
The itching of insect bites was treated with the juice from young
Heavy bleeding could be retarded by firmly pressing crushed and
heated leaves of the Peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifolia) over the
wound. The leaves of the mat rush (Lomandra longifolia) were used as
bandages for sores and abcesses.
Pregnancy is said to be avoided by eating the fruit of the Quinine
bush (Petalostigma pubescens) or the leaves of a native 'cherry'
There are many
books I would recommend for more information on Australian
Wildcrafting for food and medicine. Particularly Tim Low's books (eg,
"Bush Tucker", and "Wild food plants of Australia")