Most Sydneysiders probably wouldn’t realise that their backyard is home to some of the country's unique native plants that have existed in the region for thousands of years. Beautiful botanicals that have adapted to the environment and supported the local people.
Sadly many are no longer commonly found. However, to combat this, Sydney's University of Technology (UTS) has been working with Aunty Fran Bodkin, a botanist and D'harawal Elder to create Waraburra Nura ("The Happy Wanderer’s Place"), to create a thriving Indigenous garden on campus.
From food resources to medicines, Aunty Fran Bodkin explains what these native plants can be used for:
Telopea Speciosissima or Waratah, is Aunty Frank Bodkin’s favourite plant —and it’s easy to see why.
Bodkin says that nectar of this bold plant can be gathered and used as a food for young babies; particularly young ones who can’t take any kind of milk (including mother’s milk).
“When my son was born he was very premature and he could not take any kind of milk and he still can’t take any kind of milk and he’s forty now," she explains. "I fed him completely on Telopea Speciosissima nectar and also the nectar of the Banksia when the telopeas went off their flowering and he’s beautifully healthy and he’s survived things other kids were not able to survive.” The sap is also traditionally used to heal burns by cutting a small gash in the stem and milking the sap.
Aunty says the stems were also used to weave baskets to carry fire. “We had a thing called the waran, ‘the black rock that burns’ and we would pick it up from the valleys where we were, and then it was put into the skull of a wombat and lit and then covered with sand or ash so that it became just burning embers and we would carry that to our next camping place where we would start the fire. It was a very effective way of travelling with fire without having the danger of bushfires.”
Persoonia Levis or Geebung has a flaky deep purple bark. When mature, it produces an inner bark which when crushed in an ideal absorbent as well as having mild antiseptic qualities. It was used as filling in paperbark napkins for children and menstruating women.
Myoporum Debile; the famous Boobialla. The fruit is edible and are the best tasting when have just fallen from the plant (but you have to beat the ground creatures and parrots there first!). The fruit also has a mildly narcotic effect when overripe.
Aunty Fran says that the bark was stripped, bruised and soaked in cold water overnight the liquid would be then used to treat venereal diseases. "The water in a pothole in a rocky riverbed was heated by throwing hot stones into the water to which was then added the leaves and bark of the Boobialla. The afflicted person then soaked in the water until it was cool. This was used to treat venereal disease —It's pretty good, too, even if you don't have venereal disease," she says.
Tetragonia tetragonioides or Warrigal Greens can be dipped in hot water and rubbed to remove its hairs, and then being eaten. When cooked or blanched, they are culinary similar to spinach, with similar nutritional value (Vitamins K and B) and are naturally very high in antioxidants. They are also a mild sedative, which makes them effective for the prevention of ulcers.
However, Warrigal Greens contain oxalates which are often associated with kidney stones, putting an individual at risk if they consume too much. If you pick it at night, or when it is growing in dense shade, it ceases to produce oxalates as it needs the sunlight.
Mentha Satureioides or Creeping Mint is a little insignificant plant but with multi-purposes. Traditionally it was bruised and boiled and the liquid would be given to women who were suffering menstrual pain and stomach cramps. It would also assist women suffering menopause. An all-round pain-reliever, the leaves can also be used to relieve the discomfort of colds.
They also perfume a nice peppermint smell, and the strong scent was used to treat and repel lice in hair. The Creeping Mint features in the loved story, How The Wombat Lost His Tail. “The wombats used to roll in it to stop the mites that gave them the mange but when the white men came the cows really loved it and so they ate it all. And now there’s only tiny little pockets of it left which is why the poor old wombats are still suffering from the mange.”
Grevillea Laurifolia produces a daily nectar which was collected by washing the flowers in water until it had become sweet to taste. It was then given to young children recovering from as an energising drink.
Ficus Coronata or Sandpaper Fig leaves were used to smooth weapons and tools, and even today when making a boomerang or any kind of wooden implement. Rubbing the leaves onto wood gives you a much finer finish.
The inner bark can also be pounded, which makes the fibres separate and can be spun into string for fishing and animal traps. In traditional practice, this string was extremely useful and versatile as it wouldn’t rot in water, and could be used in both, saltwater or freshwater.
Dianella Revoluta or Blueberry Lily was often used as a lipstick for women to attract men! Eating the fruit would dye your tongues and lips blue, and had a similar purpose contemporary cosmetics, like a rouge lipstick, have today.
“If we saw a very attractive male we would poke our tongues out at him and that would mean we were available,” Aunty Fran says.
The D’harawal have dreaming story called Pokulbi: Story of How the Dianella Came to Be that explains how the Blueberry Lilly got its beautiful blue flowers.
Eucalyptus Pulverulenta is a common plant you might see at a florist, and Eucalyptus is commonly used to treat sore throats and colds today. Aboriginal people have known of the medicinal value of Eucalyptus plants for tens of thousands of years.
It is also a powerful antiseptic. The sap becomes dried and hardened and looks like little crystals, which you can ground up into a powder with a bit of water and spread it over a wound or sore, and even toothaches.
Eucalyptus Piperita or Gum Leaves had many uses.
They were regularly placed on a low fire in an enclosed space, either a small gunya (dwelling) or even a small cave where the vapour could be inhaled to reduce the discomfort of fever and hot sweats. Leaves could also be mashed to relieve diarrhoea.
The young leaves could also be boiled until the liquid had turned green. The concoction was then was strained and cooled to be used as a wash for joint or muscle pain.
The bark exudate was dissolved in hot water which was then strained and taken to relive inflammation of the bladder or applied for ringworms or any other skin fungi disease, including tinea. The exudate again was mixed with cold water until dissolved and then used as a mouthwash to treat toothaches or mouth ulcers.
The leaves and twigs were also used to smoke evil spirits out.
These Sydney native plants have an abundance of undertold medicinal, cultural and ecological values. They are easy to grow, particularly if you group them together and mix some eucalyptus leaves into the soil. While this goes against the Western notion of gardening, one that focuses on soil quality to support the plant, and instead shows the vitality and hardiness of native plants to grow in any environment as long as they are grown in close proximity to each other.
Take the names of the plants and encourage local nurseries to stock them or create your own gardens so these native beauties can thrive again.
The information in this article is provided for information only and is not intended to be used as medical advice. Bush medicines should be treated with the same caution and respect as pharmaceutical medicines. This article should not be used as a substitute for your own health professional’s advice.