five medicinal plants used by australian aborigines

People have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years. Throughout all these generations, the land has provided native Australians with everything they need to lead healthy lives.

At least half of the food eaten by early Australians came from plants, and it was up to women to harvest them. Fruits, seeds, and vegetables were seasonal, but roots could usually be dug up year-round, as the earth acted as a natural storage cabinet.

The particular plants eaten or used as medicine varied in different parts of Australia. In Arnhem Land, northern Queensland and the Kimberley, many tropical trees bear fruit and seeds, such as native figs (Ficus spp.), lilies-pillies (Acmena, Eugenie and Syzygium spp.) and macadamia nuts.

In Central Australia, where water is scarce, plants are scattered on the ground. Here, people relied more on the seeds of native grasses and acacias such as mulga (Aneurous acacia), thread acacia (Acacia coriacea) and even the coolabah tree (Eucalyptus microtheque).

In southern Australia, roots (applying this word to all the underground parts of a plant) were the most important foods.

Treahna Hamm (born 1965), Dhungala cool burn, 2017 (detail, one panel), acrylic paint, river sand, bark ink, paper 100.9 × 114 cm (each of three panels). MHM2017.2, © Treahna Hamm.
Medical History Museum, Author provided

In terms of medicine, many different parts of plants have been used. Native mints (Mentha spp.) were remedies for coughs and colds, while gum trees, rich in tannin, were used for burns. The green plum (Buchanania obovata) is extremely rich in vitamin C.

Here are five other plants that have medicinal uses:

1. Kangaroo apple (Avicular solanum Where Solanum laciniatum)

It is an excellent example of a food source and medicinal plant for many Aboriginal clan groups of the Victorian era. This shrub varies in height. Its leaves look like kangaroo legs and produce purple flowers.

The first fruits that form are yellow or green at first and very poisonous, but can be eaten when they are ripest, taking on a blood orange color. The fruit contains high levels of the alkaloid solanine, which can be infused from the leaves with hot water to create steroids.

Also known as bush apple, it has been cultivated in several parts of the world to produce and manufacture oral contraceptives, using extracts of young leaves and green fruits.

Kathrine ‘Kat’ Clarke (born 1988), Dyirr-i-laiurrk, kangaroo apple (Avicular Solanum), 2018, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 20.3×14.5cm. MHM2018.23 © Kathrine Clarke.
Medical History Museum, Author provided

2. Acacias (Acacia spp.)

Australia has over 1,000 species of acacias. The gum of some species (golden, silver, and black acacias) was an important food as well as a useful cement. The seeds of other species are rich in protein and carbohydrates and in arid areas they were eaten both green and dry.

The acacia flower was hung in people’s huts to promote sleep. In Victoria, blackwood bark (Acacia melanoxylon) has been infused and used to bathe rheumatic joints, or ingested as a mild sedative for rheumatism or indigestion.

Treahna Hamm (born 1965), Yorta Yorta bush medicine first aid kit, 2017 Paperbark, kurrajong pods, Lomandra, oak pods, bark ink, river bed clay, charcoal, billabong sediment, raffia, bottlebrush wood and flower, ash, opossum os, mussel shell, black acacia bark, stringy bark, river sand, eucalyptus leaves, tree bark, sap, 4×12×27cm, MHM2017.1, © Treahna Hamm.
Medical History Museum, Author provided

3. Old Man’s Grass (Centipeda cunninghamii)

Commonly found along the Murray River, as well as in other low-lying, marshy habitats, this plant is useful for treating many ailments, including eye infections, tuberculosis, and skin conditions. It is administered as an extract in water, or sometimes rubbed into the skin.

It is typically used for colds, coughs, and chest infections, but being a natural restorative herb, it can help boost the immune system and mobility.

Kathrine ‘Kat’ Clarke (b. 1988), Gukwonderuk (Wotjobaluk) or the Old Man’s Grass (Centipeda cunninghamii), 2018, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 20.4×14.7cm, MHM2018.22, © Kathrine Clarke.
Medical History Museum, Author provided

4. Fallen oak (Allocasuarina verticillata)

In Victoria, mature cones of this tree have been ground up and applied to wounds to treat rheumatism. Bark and wood extracts can also be used as a general medicine.

Read more: Traditional Indigenous healers should work alongside doctors to help close the gap

5. Hop bush (Slimy Dodonea)

This plant grows throughout Australia. In Queensland the sap of the root was applied against toothache and cuts.

The chewed leaf and juice were placed on stonefish and ray stings and bound for four or five days.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross (born in 1951), Bush flowers and bush medicine plants, 2015 acrylic on linen, 91×91cm, MHM2017.3, © Artists of Ampilatwatja.
Medical History Museum, Author provided

Kathrine “Kat” Clarke, artist and proud woman of the Wimmera, contributed to this article.

The works used in this article are on display at the University of Melbourne’s Museum of Medical History, as part of The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine exhibition, which runs until 28 September. This article is composed of excerpts from essays published in the catalogue.

Alvin J. Chase