Aboriginal Plant use at Tumbi Wetlands

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Aboriginal Cultural Significance of some local plants.

Early in 2011 we were approached by Hunter-Central Rivers CMA staff to consider taking up an Education grant to explore the value of plants on the site for a traditional Aboriginal community. To make this possible we employed, with the grant funds, an Aboriginal person to observe the plants on our site and report to us how they might have been used by his Darkinyung ancestors.

Recently we had this visit with Gavi Duncan, who began the day with a Welcome Song on his didgeridoo. After he introduced himself and paid respect to "our elders past and present", he went on to describe how his ancestors suffered, as they met a new culture coming into an ancient land. They left their legacy in the rock carvings and paintings, and in the history of how they lived in their environment with its foods and medicines.

He told how his people moved across the land camping in different places to correspond with the availability of foods, which were abundant in Darkinyung Country, and that we are going to look at the foods and medicines here at Tumbi Umbi, the place of "Tall Trees". He also told us that there were special meeting places as well, such as Ourimbah, "where the sacred circles are", where the stories of the land were celebrated.

Gavi then walked through the reserve with us and spoke about how his people had used some of the plants there.

The plants observed during the visit are listed below, and his comments can be found by following the links from each plant name.
Didjeridoo welcome

Video introduction
  • Dianella
  • Apple Berry
  • Sweet Wattle
  • Sydney Red Gum
  • Paper Bark-Melaleuca
  • Kangaroo Grass
  • Cumbungi
  • Fern Leaf Banksia
  • Geebung
  • Grass Tree-Xanthorrhoea

  • Darkinyung
    Name ..
    not yet availableCassytha pubescens

    Common Devil's Twine
    It's very dense when you come a bit further into the wetland - lots of grasses, shrubs and trees and you get these vines that the trees play host to. This is Devil's Twine and you can see the fruit. It goes a bit more yellow when it is ready to eat. They are edible straight from the vine.

    Not only did Aboriginal people have lots of foods, but they had a whole variety of foods which would keep you healthy by giving you a proper diet.
    Back to list Botany of Cassytha Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableCommelina cyanea

    Native Wandering Jew
    This is a ground covering plant called Wandering Jew. You can see the pretty little bright blue flowers as this spreads as a ground cover around waterholes. You wouldn't suspect that this is a food source - something you could eat - these are like their greens or vegetables. There are so many varieties in a wetland you could survive on.
    Back to list Botany of Commelina Home

    Darkinyung Name ..DadarLomandra longifolia

    Spiny-headed Mat Rush
    See the brown seeds on the stem. They are collected by the women and put into their wooden dishes (or coolamons) where the husks are taken off, preparing the seeds for grinding into flour. Some starch would be leached out by soaking in water and they would then be baked on the coals of the fire like johnny cakes. That's how it would be eaten - it was one of the most staple parts of the Darkinyung diet.

    The leaf is strong and can be split into any width you want. Then it is soaked to soften before being worked into dilly bags and baskets.

    Also if you pull clumps of leaves off the roots, the lower part of the leaf, where it breaks off, is edible. You can eat it straight off the roots.
    Back to list Botany of Lomandra Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableAcacia irrorata

    Black Wattle
    Black Wattle is one of the trees we used for making tools and weapons and it also has a sweet edible resin that seeps out of it. They tend to have big twisted roots that are good for boomerangs, and you can get big fat witchetty grubs out of them too.

    The timber of the Black Wattle was mostly commonly used as it was a good timber, solid and hard, and it keeps well for a long time - good for digging sticks, clubs and boomerangs.
    Other timbers used were mahoganies and ironbarks.
    Back to list Botany of Acacia irrorata Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableAcacia longifolia

    Sydney Golden Wattle
    There is a variety of wattles across Australia and on the east coast, and in particular on Darkinyung country, this Sydney Golden Wattle is used. It is a cleanser and skin wash used by the Aboriginal people to clean and treat rashes and infections. You have to break up the leaves so you can get the sticky sap out of the leaves. It then soaps up into a lather as you rub it between wet hands. The lather then would be rubbed onto parts of the skin where there was a rash or an infection as it is medicinal.

    When fish are trapped in pools we would soap up the wattle leaves in the pool and the fish would float to the top as the oxygen is taken out of the water, - it doesn't harm them and makes them easier to catch.
    Back to list Botany of Acacia longifolia Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableDianella

    Blue Fax Lily
    Dianella is another edible berry which ripens in early summer. It has an attractive purple fruit which is the edible part, and it is very high in vitamin C.

    Its leaves are used, along with a number of other grasses, by the Aboriginal women, for weaving.

    One of the tricks Aboriginal people would do is pluck the end of the leaf away from the root. Blowing in the end of the leaf will make a whistle to imitate the forest wrens.
    Back to list Botany of Dianella Home

    Name ..
    DhalawangBillardiera scandens

    Apple berry
    This is Appleberry - it turns from green to brownish yellow when ripe and then falls to the ground. They can be collected just before they ripen and should then be left in the sun to fully ripen. The vine grows over the top of shrubs and the fruit ripens in early summer. When ripe they taste a bit like apple and they are beautiful to eat.
    Back to list Botany of Apple berry Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableAcacia sauveolens

    Sweet Wattle
    This is the Sweet Wattle, one of the most popular trees today, being used to make Sweet Wattle coffee and Sweet Wattle cakes.

    See the pods - Aboriginal people would collect them when they are green. Then they were roasted in the fire to be eaten as a green vegetable.

    Also see the black seeds in the dried pod!Aroung late Spring to early Summer, these are the seeds are harvested and ground down in the coolamons to make their bread. And very nice tasting bread too!
    Back to list Botany of Sweet Wattle Home

    Name ..
    not yet availableAngophora costata

    Red Gum
    This is the Red Gum or Angophora and Aboriginal women especially had a use for this tree. They would cut around the edge of the bowls and let the air in under the bark. When it was drying out it would pop off and they would have a beautiful natural bowls that would carry water or be used as a dish.

    They cut bigger pieces from the trunk for shields; then it would come off more easily.

    Hear Dreamtime story about Angophora
    Back to list Botany of Angophora Home

    Name ..
    Magar Melaleuca

    As you can see this is a Melaleuca forest here in the wetland. Aboriginal people call melaleuca "Bilar" for wetland tree. Its common name is Paperbark, and Aboriginal women would peel off really big pieces of this bark and shape them into nice little coolamons for carrying things like berries while they are collecting food in the wetlands.
    It is also used to wrap food to cook in the ground.
    Because the paperbark is nice and soft it is also used to line the floor of caves and also line the coolamons for young babies.

    If you go deeper into the bark under the papery layers you will find reddish bark which can be soaked in water to make a mouthwash. Because it is medicinal it is used as a bandaid to cover cuts and sores. Also if you soak the bark in water it can make a skin wash.
    Back to list Botany of Melaleuca Home

    Name ..
    DurawiThemeda australis

    Down here at the waterhole again we have some Kangaroo Grass, one of the variety of seeds Aboriginal people use to make bread.

    Aboriginal people use Kangaroo grass extensively; they collect the seed to make flour. Like the Lomandra seed it would be ground down by the stone into a coolamon, then made into a paste and baked on the hot coals.

    There is a variety of different seeds that Aboriginal people collect and use to grind down to make their flour and bread.
    Back to list Botany of Themeda australis Home

    Name ..
    not yet available
    Typha orientalis

    This plant is Bullrush or Cumbungi and it grows in lots of the waterways. The base of leafy part of the plant, broken off the root, can be eaten as a fresh vegetable.

    The leaf is useful too, like the lomandra leaf as it can be split to the width needed and woven into baskets. Like lomandra it would be soaked in water so it wont break and to make it pliable.

    The mature flower would be collected, mulched up, shaped into a "patty cake" and baked in the fire, then eaten like that.
    Back to list Botany of Typha orientalis

    Name ..
    not yet availableBanksia

    This plant is a Banksia, named after Sir Joseph Banks who sketched it in the early days of white settlement.

    The flower of plant this plant has lots of colour and sweetness; Darkinyung people call the sweet drink "boorl" . Banksia and Grevillia flowers would be soaked in water to make sweet drinks. They could also use Waratah and Gymea Lily flowers as these all have lots of sweetness.

    A lot of people use the Banksia cones in crafts today, painting them up and creating different things from them.
    Back to list Botany of Banksia Home

    Darkinyung Name ..
    MambarPersoonia levis

    This plant is called a Geebung. It is the Broad-leafed Geebung. There are many varieties, including 3 different ones at Tumbi Wetlands, but they all have a similar little spike at the top of the fruit, as it is maturing, as shown on the right side of the photo.

    These different varieties have their fruits maturing at different times throughout the Summer and they all make a contribution to the Darkinyung diet.
    Back to list Botany of Persoonia (Geebungs) Home

    Darkinyung Name ..
    WirragalXanthorrhoea media

    This is one of the slow growing Grasstrees that is found on the Central Coast. Some have trunks, others like this one do not but all of them produce a resin that is used to fix spearhead to shaft and also for sealing canoes. Aboriginal people collect lumps of the resin from the outer bark or the soil nearby and melt it to use as a glue and it sets as hard as cement.

    Since the leaves are so tough they provide another option for the women to use in weaving mats and dilly-bags so, as with the other grassy leaves, they are soaked for a couple days to make them easier to work with.

    From the cente of the plant a spear-like stem grows up with a sweet flower on it. On the taller grasstrees this grows to a height of nearly 2 metres and is used by Aboriginal men as a spear shaft. They collect it when it is green and after placing many pinholes around it, dry it over the coals of a fire to harden it. The pinholes allow the escape of gases that might otherwise build up and explode the shaft. They bind the spear head onto this shaft and glue it in place with the resin and finally secure balancing weights as well. This makes one of the most beautiful spears which are light and fly really well.
    Back to list Botany of Xanthorrhoea media Home