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Aboriginal Bush Foods
Some of Sydney’s bush food plants can be seen in the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters garden at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
As well, you can take a self-guided Aboriginal Walk through the Royal Botanic Garden & Domain just download a map and follow the instructions. Or you can join an Indigenous walk - Aboriginal Heritage Tour.
Additional information is available in a Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust publication called Bush Foods of New South Wales by Kathy Stewart and Bob Percival.
The following information on plant uses has been provided on labels near plant specimens in the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters garden and has been endorsed by Aboriginal communities in Sydney’s east and south-west. The local Aboriginal names of these plants have been included where they are known.
Grass-tree (Xanthorrhoea resinifera)
Spiny-headed Mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)
Local Aboriginal name unknown
Blue Flax Lily (Dianella caerulea)
Local Aboriginal name unknown
Heath Banksia (Banksia ericifolia)
Rock Lily (Dendrobium speciosum)
Lilly Pilly (Syzigium paniculatum)
Bracken Fern (Pteridium esculentum)
Warrigal Greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides)
Local Aboriginal name unknown
Paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
Our Mount Tomah Darug Aboriginal Connections display at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden includes story boards at five locations in the Garden, which tell about various aspects of the lives of the local Darug Aboriginal people, including their use of plants for bush foods. Complementing the outdoor display is a booklet called ‘Mount Tomah Darug Aboriginal Connections’ by Suzanne Kenney, available from the Gardens Shop.
The following information comes from the booklet, and has been endorsed by the local Darug communities.
The seasonal cycles of plants dictated Darug people’s movement around their territories. Their staple diet was the plentiful edible lily tuber that they replanted each season in the rich alluvial river flats around the Hawkesbury-Nepean (Deerubin) River. Replanting and fire management ensured the seeds and root-stock continued to provide food for the family as they passed through the floodplain and lagoon country when the mullet were running.
Darug people knew how to time their journeys when nectars, berries and fruits could be collected on the plains and in the mountains. Most other plant and animal foods were seasonal, and common in different places at different times throughout the year.
Traditionally, plants were used in multiple ways. Xanthorrhoea (grass-tree) is a good example. The flowers are a good source of nectar; the flower stalk could be used for making lightweight fishing spears and also as the drill base for fire making (friction created by a smaller stick inserted and rubbed in the hollow centre will quickly smoulder); the spiky leaves could be woven and their white bases could be eaten when young. The resin from the trunk was also used as a glue - one use was to bond barbs onto spear heads.
Flowers such as wattles and banksias were shaken with water in a coolomon - a hollowed out wooden vessel made from a section of knotted tree trunk - to make a sweet drink.
Wild honey nests and other treats, like juicy grubs, were also collected from trees. Women’s digging sticks and men’s wooden clubs were useful to dig for yams and tubers. Grinding stones were used to make flour from seeds and for removing plant poisons. Before the seeds of the burrawang (Macrozamia) could be eaten, they were pounded and placed in running water for up to two weeks to remove the toxin. After this they could be dried and ground again to make flour then formed into flat rounds of bread or ‘johnny cakes’, that were cooked over hot coals.
Historial research by Mr Colin Gale - Darug elder and Chair of the Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation - indicates that Captain Dawes, one of the officers of the First Fleet and a keen linguist, described food plants belonging to three categories:
Fire was used to control the undergrowth in forest areas, creating beautiful vistas through the tall trees. When the Darug lit fires for hunting, they were not only able to catch kangaroos, but smaller animals sometimes fell into the ground traps that had been set by digging pits and covering them with branches. Long woven traps made from reeds and grasses were also used for catching birds and smaller animals.
The fire-managed parklands were the animal fields that supported emu, kangaroos, wallabies and many other animals. The tall trees provided another important food source - possums and other tree animals - and the Darug were expert climbers. The men would cut toe-holds in the trees and scale to the top branches in seconds.
The Dharawal people enjoyed a diverse diet and had an intimate knowledge of edible plants and when and where they could be found. Some of these plants were potentially poisonous, but the D’harawal knew how to treat them in order to make them edible.
The most important of these was the ‘burrawang’ (Macrozamia), a palm-like plant producing clusters of seeds with a tough leathery red covering. Macrozamia seeds are highly toxic and to render them edible the Dharawal would pound them, place them in running water for up to two weeks to wash away the toxin and then pound them again. The resulting flour was baked into flat cakes that were soft to eat and formed a staple of their diet.
Banksias, grevilleas and melaleucas all provided nectar that was either sucked directly from the flower or soaked in water to make a sweet drink called ‘bool’. Their main source of protein appears to have been small marsupials, such as wallabies and possums, and occasionally freshwater mullet from the rivers and creeks.
Orchids and lilies with edible tubers were also plentiful around Mount Annan, as was the native ‘yam’, another dietary staple. A number of other edible roots were also consumed, as well as leaves and berries. Plants were an important medicinal source and also provided material for making string and rope, such as ‘kurrajong’. Both grass-tree resin and beeswax were used to attach hatchet heads to handles and barbs to fishing and hunting spears.