Grass Tree, Xanthorrhoea australis found in the Milarri Garden of Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.
Image: Siobhan Motherway
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: What uses did local Aboriginal people have for native plants?
Answer: For the Indigenous people of Australia, the bush functioned as a sort of “supermarket”, where they used their knowledge and skills to utilise plants to support their lives through the provision of food, tools, clothing, medicines and building materials.
Over half of the food Indigenous people consumed was made up of plant material, collected and prepared by women. In the southern parts of Australia, most of this food was made up of the roots and tubers of various plants. Food sources also included the leaves, nectar, fruits and seeds of plants. An important food source in Victoria was the Common Nardoo, or Dullum Dullum in Wemba Wemba language, found in swampy mud flats. The spore-cases which contain starch, appear as water recedes and are ground into flour for baking, or roasted whole.
The land also functioned as the indigenous pharmacy. Medicine was sourced from plants such as Old Man Weed (Gukwonderuk in Wotjobaluk language), which was used to treat a variety of common ailments. The plant could be prepared as a tonic by boiling in water – in this form it was used for colds, chest complaints and as a general restorative – or by rubbing directly on the skin for itches and rashes.
Many plants were used for the manufacture of tools and the construction of objects. Hardwood timbers were used in the creation of weapons or containers. Resins were used in the creation of glues, and plant fibres were made into string, rope and woven baskets. The outer bark of suitable large trees was used in the construction of canoes.
Plants are often multi-purpose, with a plant like the Yellow Gum (Terrk in Djada wurrung language) producing oil for medicine to treat colds, timber for tools and weapons, and nectar for a sweet drink. The Grass Tree or Baggup (Woi wurrung language) is a very useful plant for making tools, with the resin used as a glue and sealant, the flowering stem as a fire stick, and the reed for the manufacture of spears.
A famous story is told of Burke and Wills; in desperation and very close to starvation, they ate raw nardoo spore-cases. This is a food which the Aboriginal people ate cooked. As a result of not knowing how to properly prepare this food, Burke and Wills sickened and died. It is important to note that Aboriginal people are experts in the preparation, use and consumption of indigenous plant species; you must never eat any part of any plant unless you are certain it is edible, or without the guidance of an expert.
In Melbourne, you can learn more about indigenous plant use by taking a tour through the Milarri Garden found in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum or the Aboriginal Heritage Walk hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens.