5.4 Indigenous and modern uses of native plants
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Curriculum Alignment

11, 18, 19, 20

Years K-6: Aboriginal Studies, Science and Technology, HSIE
Years 7-10: Aboriginal Studies, HSIE, Science
Years 11-12: Aboriginal Studies, Earth and Environmental Science, Society and Culture, Geography, Biology

SOSE, Science, Geography

Futures, Interdependence, Thinking

Science, Thinking Processes, Geography

>Students gain an appreciation of how Indigenous Australians made use of native plants found along rivers
>Students identify three native plants and explain their uses

1.5 hours

Materials required
>Native Plant Field Guides
>Aboriginal Plant Use Guide for South Eastern Australia (hyperlink available on Sustaining River Life cd and web versions)
>Survival stories (see below)
>Resource information – Geographical distribution of commonly used plants (see below)
>Homework sheet – Ethnobotanical matching (see below)

Source: Australian National Botanic Gardens 
Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make of use of indigenous plants. Ethnobotanists explore how plants are used for such things as food, shelter, medicine, clothing, hunting, and religious ceremonies. 

The Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years, and in all those long generations the land provided them with everything they needed for a healthy life. They also learned to manage their country in ways that ensured the sustainability of these resources.

The reeds and rushes along rivers and around wetlands are used to make a range of products. Photograph: Bill Phillips
The reeds and rushes along rivers and around wetlands are used to make a range of products. Photograph: Bill Phillips

How did they do this? To quote Edward Curr, an early settler, they ‘tilled their ground and cultivated their pastures with fire’. By controlled burning, they kept the bush open and allowed the growth of new seedlings in the ash-bed. Aborigines in Arnhem Land still do this. Many Australian plants will re-grow quickly after a fire; indeed some plants such as the grass-tree flower more prolifically after fire.

At least half of the food eaten by Aborigines came from plants, and it was the task of the women to collect them. Just as we eat root vegetables, greens, fruits and seeds, so did the Aborigines. Fruits, seeds and greens were only available during their appropriate seasons, but roots could usually be dug up all the year round, because the earth acted as a natural storage cupboard. Important foods were replanted. The regular digging-over of the soil, and the thinning out of clumps by collection of plants, together with burning to provide fertiliser, is not very different from what we do in our own gardens. 

The particular plants which were eaten varied in different parts of Australia. 

In the southern parts of Australia, roots were the most important foods. Like the Maoris of New Zealand, the Australian Aborigines used the long roots of Bracken fern, from which they chewed or beat out a sticky starch. There are many native lilies with small tuberous roots which were collected for food such as Early nancy, Chocolate lily and Milkmaids. Murnong or Yam-daisy was a plentiful and favourite food.

Along the Murray-Darling river system, Cumbungi or Bulrush provided much nourishment, as did Water ribbons, and Marsh club-rush, which has hard walnut-sized tubers.

Plants were used for many other things besides food. The long leaves of sedges, rushes and lilies were collected to make baskets and mats, and soaked and beaten to free the fibres to make string.

The bark of trees made buckets, dishes and shields; River Red-gum bark was particularly good for making canoes, and old scarred ‘canoe trees’ can still be seen. Some rice-flower shrubs have such strong fibres on the outside of the stem that they have been called ‘bushman’s bootlace’, and were used by the Aborigines to make fine nets in which to collect Bogong moths to eat.

Medicines also came from plants Native mints were remedies for coughs and colds, and the gum from gum-trees, which is rich in tannin, was used for burns.

Canoe tree on the Murray River. Photograph: Bill Phillips
Canoe tree on the Murray River. Photograph: Bill Phillips

Medicinal plant

Lesson plan 
1. Ask students the following questions. Discuss and then list the plants on the board.

2. Who is wearing seeds or bark today? If you are wearing blue jeans or a T-shirt you’re wearing cotton; or perhaps linen, which is made from the bark of flax.

3. Who ate seeds for breakfast or lunch? For example grains in cereal or bread, coffee or cocoa washed down with tea, chamomile, aloe vera, lemon myrtle or jojoba. 

4. What other plants have you used today? Think about medicines, vitamins, lotions, cosmetics, foods of all kinds. 

5. Why aren’t we more aware of this?

Floodplain wetlands like this are rich with usable native plants. Photograph: Bill Phillips
Floodplain wetlands like this are rich with usable native plants. Photograph: Bill Phillips

6. Point out on a map the varying regions that the plants listed on the board come from (see information below).

7. What do you notice about the origins of the plants we use most?

8. At the river, streams or wetland: Ask students how the Aboriginal people of this area survived using native plants?

9. Break students into teams and give them a ‘survival story’ (see below) that will direct them to find plants for their ‘survival’.

10. Using the Field guides and Plant use guides, challenge students to discover what they need in the area and create a story or song to share with the group about their ‘survival day’.

Be warned:
Survival Story 7
is the most challenging!

Get the students to find out how to make a net out of string and then make a small one for themselves. Show these to the class.
Research, plan and develop a bush tucker garden for the school.

Secondary pathway
Have students research, gather and cook a bush tucker meal in class (being certain to meet all necessary requirements in terms of hygeine and the service of food to others).

Survival Story 1
You are lost, alone and hungry, near a river. With fire, a small blade and a cooking pot, find one plant that can help you get all you need for a satisfying square meal that includes protein, starch and greens.

Survival Story 2
 After a flash flood, you find yourself with only a small knife on the wrong side of a deep wide river from the rest of your family. Find a plant that can help you join up with the rest of your mob before they give up on you.

Survival Story 3
That’s it! Walking is for the dogs. You want a boat! You’ve got the tools, the time and the patience to make one! Find a plant you can use to make your dream come true.

Survival Story 4
It’s summer on the highlands and tablelands, that means it’s time to sit back by the fire, under the stars, grill some kangaroo and have a nice damper cake. What plant might you use to make your damper?

Survival Story 5
Sometimes a person just gets in the mood for a sticky sweet treat. Find a plant that will satisfy your craving.

Survival Story 6
Ack! The stupid head of your axe just fell off the handle! What a day! Find a plant you can use to glue it on so you can get back to work chopping wood.

Survival Story 7
You are sure you could get a few of those fat top-knot pigeons if you had a boomerang. Find a plant you can use to make one. (Please don’t use it!)

Survival Story 8
It’s been a great day gathering, but you are going to need some way to carry it all back to camp. Find a plant you can use to make yourself a basket.