>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
>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
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