Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Talking about plants

These stories are best read aloud to hear the voice of their tellers:

  • Beryl Carmichael - Aboriginal Cultural Studies Advisor to Schools and Communities in the Broken Hill area.
  • Ruth Simms - born in Sydney and grew up on the Reserve at La Perouse, she remembers a happy childhood and teenage life of community-based living.
  • Barbara Timbery - an active member of her coastal community and regarded highly as an Elder by all who know her.

Acacia trees

Seeds from the acacia tree were gathered extensively by women and children. They’d walk
for miles until they got their dishes full and they’d take them back to the clearest, nearest clay pan and they’d sit down to grind all their seeds up to make their flour. So out of the seeds they’d produce a green-greyish-looking flour that they would make into seed cakes.

Also from the acacia tree they’d get the gum, the sweet gum, and was edible. It comes on during the summer months, of course, and the kids used to go for a mile walk and gather the gum and eat all that up.

The acacia tree is also used for making weapons because it’s got a nice red-coloured wood. It’s a lot easier to work with. And today we find different shapes in the acacia branches that they can make into snakes and walking sticks and things like that. They’re very useful, the acacia tree. They haven’t got a very long life, of course. They die out really early, so you can’t really prolong their life at all.
Beryl Carmichael

The Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) is a ‘bush calendar’ - when it flowers, the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area know it is time to fish for mullet.

Dead Finish

The wood of this bush is very pretty when it’s polished up. It’s a purply colour, and as the wood dies and gets older more purple comes through. A really deep purple will come through the middle of the wood.
Aboriginal people like to use this wood for decoration, for making shakers or clap-sticks out of it. You can also make necklaces and brooches out of it.
Beryl Carmichael

Eucalypts

Aboriginal people have many uses for eucalypts. The fragrant oil-bearing leaves of eucalypts are used to relieve colds, headaches, backaches and fevers. Seeds, bark from young roots, nectar, galls, wild honey, water and manna from certain species of eucalypts can be eaten. Gum from eucalypts can be applied directly to sores and abrasions or boiled in water and used as a wash. The wood is used to make tools and other implements such as dishes and bowls. Eucalypt bark is used to make shelters and canoes; it can also be fashioned into fishing lines, fish nets and baskets.

All along the riverbanks, of course, you’ll come across numerous river gums where the footprints of our people are left behind in the removal of the bark for various weapons such as the shield. As well, they’d take off the bark for their huts to make them weatherproof and they’d also use the sheets of bark to bury the dead in. They’d wrap them in the bark and take them to the closest sand dune for burial. So the bark was very important to the Aboriginal people.
Beryl Carmichael

Widespread in inland Australia, the Coolibah (Eucalyptus coolibah) is one of a number of eucalypts containing quantities of water in their roots. Shallow roots are located and dug up, cut into pieces and up-ended into a bowl to drain. The Coolibah is known as gulabaa to Gamilaroi people and as kumparla to Paakantyi people.

Leopardwood

We were hoping we’d find some nice sugary gum here that we could eat. It’s really nice … really sweet. You can eat it straight away. And sometimes we used to gather great clumps of it when we were kids and we’d take it home and put it in the billy with a little bit of water and boil it up and make nice syrup to drink. It is a two-fold tree – before the flower forms you get the buds and you chew and suck on that and you get a lot of nice nectar out of it. If we come back in late spring, early summer, we’ll be able to get some gum off it.
Beryl Carmichael

Wilga

The wilga was used as medicinal tree. Under the outer bark they’d scrape off all the inside and pound that up or chew it up and then let it dry. And they’d put that on open wounds, on boils or sores and that would heal it up. The leaves were used for putting over the hot ashes and lying people on to heal the aches and pains in their joints. The wilga tree was also used extensively for weapons in regards to their spears, their nulla nullas, kudgeroos, bundis.
Beryl Carmichael

Grasses

Seeds of all native grasses are edible. On a global scale the seeds of wheat, rice, maize and sorghum are the world’s most important crops. Native Millet (Panicum decompositum) is a widespread and common native grass. Aboriginal people made bread by grinding the seed between stones, making a paste and baking it in ashes.

Wild Tomato

These are very small here, but as you go to a better climate in other areas closer to the coast, you’ll find they grow much bigger. But they go through different colours from orange, yellows, purples, reds - all colours - and their edible.

At the bottom of the tomato bush you’ll find the moon grub, and moon grub was also used extensively by the Aboriginal people for fishing.
Beryl Carmichael

Old Man Saltbush

Leaves from the Old Man Saltbush (known as panparla or paalaka to Paakantyi people) can be chewed to extract enough salt to satisfy the body’s requirements. These leaves, when mixed with leaves of the Emu Bush (known as thiku to Ngiyampaa people), can be boiled to make a powerful medicine for dabbing on open wounds, boils, scabies, school sores and cold sores.
Beryl Carmichael

Yadah Pan

This little pan that’s got purple, pinky coloured leaves on it is known as the yadah pan. It has red berries on it, with a shiny black eye in the middle, and they’re very sweet to eat. They’re different from a bush tomato. The bush tomato is a bit salty but these are very sweet. You’ll find these clumped around the trees or anywhere on the flood plains.
Beryl Carmichael

Wild Banana

Around some of the dry mulga you’ll find the wild banana creeper. The root of the wild banana, of course, was eaten and we call it the karkooloo, and the wild banana is called the thupa. The fruit is dark green to a grey-green colour and you peel the skin off it and you’ll find a cluster of seeds down the bottom, covered with fine silky hair, similar to cotton. You can eat the whole banana, cook it in ashes and eat it whole, or you can just peel it and eat the seeds off it. It’s really rich in vitamins, so it will be a bit bitter until you acquire the taste for it. So whenever you find some mulga you’ll also find not far away the wild bananas growing on the dead mulga trees.

When we were kids you’d just eat them off the tree or we’d gather enough and take them home and cook them in the ashes - they were much better then, they were similar to avocado inside, as well as the tip of the asparagus spears. None grew on the mission, but they grew within 30 km of Menindee, the town and the mission. And the most I’ve ever found is around Broken Hill here, in the hills, It’s the ideal place here for them.
Beryl Carmichael

Sarsaparilla

We use the sarsaparilla (waraburra to Eora people) for medicine, drinking. It cures internal pains like belly-ache. You boil up the water, put the leaves in it and let it boil. You let the leaves just go cold in it and then you bottle it. People are selling it now for bush medicine and some people have been using it for cancers.
Ruth Simms

Nectar-bearing flowers

Nectar-bearing flowers are common throughout Australia. Aboriginal people harvest nectar from flowers including waratahs, callistemon, grevillea, banksia, hakea. Flowers can be sucked or eaten whole. A sweet drink can be made by immersing nectar-bearing flowers in water.

Native cherry

Native Cherry’s a beautiful bush with a very soft leaf. The fruit is yellow and when it gets ripe it turns the bright orange and you discard the little green pip thing at the end. There’s no seeds in it, you just eat it.
Ruth Simms

Acacia-aneura
Mulga (Acacia aneura)

Acacia-longifolia.
Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia)

Acacia-tetragonophylla
Dead Finish (Acacia tetragonophylla)

Eucalyptus-camaldulensis
Reiver Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)

Eucalyptus-coolibah
Coolibah (Eucalyptus coolibah)

Flindersia-maculosa
Leopardwood (Flindersia maculosa)

Geijera-parviflora
Wilga (Geijera parviflora)

Panicum-decompositum
Native Millet (Panicum decompositum)

Enchylaena-tomentosa
Wild Tomato (Enchylaena tomentosa)

Atriplex-sp
Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex sp.)

Einadia-nutans
Yadah Pan (Einadia nutans)

Marsdenia-viridiflora

Marsdenia-australis
Wild Banana (Marsdenia australis)

Smilax-glyciphylla
Sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla)

Telopea-speciosissima
Waratah (Telopia speciosissima)

Grevillea-juncifolia
Honeysucle Spider Flower (Grevillea juncifolia)

Callistemon-salignus
Willow Bottlebrush (Callistemon salignus)

Exocarpus-cupressiformis
Native Cherry (Exocarpus cupressiformis)