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Plant food & medicine


Botany was perhaps the pinnacle of Aboriginal learning and one secret of their remarkable ability to tame wild terrain.

Geoffrey Blainey – Triumph of the Nomads, p. 170

Though we might well agree with Blainey’s sentiments concerning botany as a key factor in Aboriginal culture, the ‘taming’ of nature is a very European idea implying something wild that needs to be placed under human control: it is doubtful that Aboriginals would have perceived their use of plants and relationship to the natural world in this way. So far as we can tell, their depth of plant knowledge was based on utilitarian ecology. There is little, if any, evidence of the detached curiosity in ‘the plants themselves’ that we associate with Western botanical science. However, in the absence of an indigenous written record all such assumptions reduce to speculation.

Range of plant uses

Plants provided food, water, medicines (including narcotics, poisons and stimulants), fuel, and the raw material used for tools and weapons, the construction of shelters, and the crafting of artifacts, as well as being part of the artistic world with its spiritual and totemic aspects and associated ritual, including many taboos.

Sources of information on Aboriginal plant use

We know about Aboriginal plant use through the observations made by many of the early explorers and later ethnobotanists together with Aboriginal oral history. In recent times Philip Clarke, former Director of the South Australian Museum and now a Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University, has synthesized the topic in both scientific publications and popular authoritative and thoroughly referenced books including: Where the Ancestors Walked. Australia as an Aboriginal Landscape (2003); Aboriginal People and their Plants (2007, includes list of botanical and common names); Aboriginal Plant Collectors: Botanists and Australian Aboriginal People in the Nineteenth Century (2008); Australian Plants and Aboriginal Tools (2012). Specific commentary on plants on these web pages draws heavily on his sources. Information on Aboriginal biocultural knowledge in South-eastern Australia, as presented in the literature of settler-colonists, has been compiled by Cahir, Clark and Clarke  (2018).

Many lists of aboriginal plant use (including fungi) have been compiled including those for Arnhem Land, Cape York and Central Australia, South-western Western Australia, Victoria, and parts of New South Wales, usage and plant availability varying between localities. Means of procuring and using the plants would often depend on geographic and ecological region. In desert regions edible plant parts (roots and tubers) were largely underground. In tropical rainforest the food was mainly fruits and seeds that required climbing skills, the seed winnowed, milled or ground and made into cakes for roasting.


Blainey concludes that … vital evidence about Aboriginals’ food has either vanished or been misconstrued.[5] Diet, assumed for many years to be based on meat has, for most regions of Australia been re-thought to include about half of the daily consumption and consisted of a wide variety of greens, fruits, bulbs, berries, seeds, pods, and roots. Blainey reports that in Cape York 141 species were eaten, including 73 fruits, 46 roots and 19 seeds and nuts, 11 greens; Arnhem Land at least 35 fruits and 34 vegetables; Wilson’s Promontory over 100 different plants.

In many regions plants provided a more abundant and reliable source of food than meat and therefore formed the dietary mainstay, although this depended on season and many other factors.[3] In general men had the first call on meat and women on plants. Sufficient food was gathered each day for daily needs with storage of food for the future relatively uncommon. Food gathering was enjoyed and, unlike unlike the lives of many farmers, the life of a hunter-gatherer was not regarded as monotonous drudgery and toil.

Staple foods varied from region to region. In the tropics it was the potato-flavoured Long Yam (Dioscorea transversa). In Central Australia there was grass seed and the crushed nuts of Nardoo. In the Cape York region at lest 140 species were used for food and the popular round yams and waterlily tubers were occasionally hoarded at the height of the harvest season[14] and in the Gulf country of NSW there were over over 100 species used.[12] Among the favoured plants were the starchy tubers found in swamps such as Cumbungi, the root of the bulrush. Yam daisies were, according to botanist-explorer James Drummond “ … the finest esculent vegetable the colony produces.”[6] Those growing along creeks were regularly dug to leave the ground full of hole and mounds. On the Hutt River in WA the diggings observed by explorer George Grey extended for close to 6 km.[6] The gum found on wattles was a delicacy. In Victoria there was the heart and fronds of tree ferns, pith of the grass tree, sow thistles, and the fruits of the wild raspberries, Lilly-pilly, kangaroo apples, Pigface, Native Cherry as well as mushrooms and truffle. Among the root crops popular in the south-east and varying between regions were the carrot-like oxalis in SA. In the tropical north were an assortment of native grapes, plums, figs and berries, many small and collected painstakingly. Even in the Centre around Alice Springs were at least 20 greens, 45 seeds and nuts and large crops of quandong but the preponderance of grass cereals, seeds and nuts reflected availability, the nardoo ground into a meal eaten raw or baked in fire ashes was especially favoured for many months of the year by people in area bounding Queensland and South Australia.

Gathering of food, often with a digging stick, was a female task and the time taken would have varied according to time of year, locality and many other factors but generally not more than a few hours.p.165 These were also times for talking and resting. A study in Arnhemland reported that both men and women preferred to look for food each day rather than hoarding, and that the women did not regard their task as either monotonous or a drudgery.[7] On Groote Eylandt the rhizome of the blue waterlily was eaten.[8] Blainey considered that … in most regions of Australia the people in a normal year gained at least half of their energy from plant foods.[9]p. 168

Major crops would be met with festivals of feasting and gathering of people throughout a region, like the Bunya Bunya pine nut feast which drew several hundred people and lasted for 2-3 months, experienced by Leichhardt in 1843 in the forests 70-80 km north of Brisbane. In the massive pineapple-sized cones, produced in quantity every 3-4 years, were kernels the size of chestnuts that were eaten raw or cooked.

Energy-rich nectar was licked from the compound flowers of plants like bottlebrushes, banksias, hakeas, grasstrees and some grevilleas or dipped into water to make a sweet drink.

In drought water could be obtained from plants in many ways, for example by chewing the pith of the bottletree and baobab or tapping the roots.

Aboriginal diet included many animals including most mammals and a wide range of plants. For the most part people would move to food sources that were harvested on a seasonal cycle which ensured fresh food from known sources with no need for storage. In the south wetlandsand the coast were rich ingame, temperate region root foods including Bulrush, Marsh Clubrush, orchids Early Nancy, Milkmaids and a range of ‘lilies’.

Major plant foods would vary according to climate. Staple foods included Yam, Nardoo, Banyan and Screw Palm, Fig (Nitre Bush (Dillon Fruit), Solanums)

Karkalla, Pigface (Carpobrotus spp.)S Eyre PeninsulaFruit juice (Jan ? Mar)
Nurp (Kunzeapomifera)Southern coastal dunesFruits
Nondo (Acacia sophorae)Southern coastal dunesPods roasted, seed eaten when green"
BrassicasMurray river flatsYoung leaves (from Aug)
CycadsN Australia/Arnhem LandCooked or processed into cakes: staple of Arnhem Land
Bunya (Araucaria bidwillii)Qld. Blackall Ranges 100 km NW Brisbane, Bunya Mountains Nuts mostly roasted: stored in dryish sand (Jan ? Mar, on 3-4 year cycle). Also the gum and peeled, roasted roots
Bush Potato (?Platysace spp.)Coastal and Central WATubers
Warran (Dioscoreahastifolia)
Yams (six genera, many species)Continent wideTubers

Feast plants

Location of corroborees

Early settlers noticed that beached whales provided a food source for feasts that would attract gatherings of people from up to 200 km away. There were also burrawang feasts and communal kangaroo hunts.


Of all the plants consumed by Aboriginals it is the yam that takes pride of place. It is hardly surprising that the yam, represented in human form, should be the first and oldest Australian plant illustration featuring in the rock art of Arnhem Land that is over 7,000 years old and also possess ceremonial.

However, the common name ‘yam’ is used for a range of botanical entities including at least six genera and ten species: Amorphophallus paeoniifolius (Elephant Yam, Bush Pumpkin), Dioscorea bulbifera (Bitter Yam, Ait Potato, Kurlama Yam), D. hastifolia (Warran Ajigo), D. transversa (Long Yam, Pencil Yam), Ipomoea costata (Big Potato, Bush Potato, Desert Sweet Potato), Microseris lanceolata (Yam-daisy), Platysace cirrosa (Round Yam, Bush Potato), P. deflexa (Round Yam, Bush Potato), P. maxwellii (Round Yam, Bush Potato), Vigna lanceolata (Pencil Yam, Small Yam). Some species were specially prepared by soaking and baking to remove toxins, generally with a flavour akin to the sweet potato. Of all the plants that could have been subject to human selection pressure it is probably the yam that is the most likely to have been changed by artificial selection. They were retrieved bydigging sticks from often more than 1 m deep. Yams have, in recent times, become less abundant as a result of grazing and competition with grasses and herbs.[13]

Food preparation

Hunting was a male pursuit while women collected and processed the food passing on their intimate knowledge of both the individual plants and their ecology, associations, seasonality, methods of preparing and cooking etc. to the next generation. Cooking employed very few utensils but grinding stones were fundamental to processing seed. In the arid zone they were used for processing mainly grass seed and Nardoo. Rather than transporting these they would be left at a camp site for the next time.

Toxic content was removed using a range of techniques including pounding, leaching, soaking and heating. Seeds especially were stored by burying in bags or wrapped in bark, dried or converted to cake form.[4] In Central Australia of the 45 species whose seed is recorded as a food source 14 were grasses and 19 were wattles.

A number of plants requied special preparation to remove toxins, being put through a process of grinding, leaching, fermentation and baking into biscuit-like loaves, this included the removal of alkaloids like cycasin from cycad seed and in the preparation of nardoo (Marsilea spp.) for feasting. A paste made out of the fine seed of Portulacca oleracea, Munyeroo, was popular in desert regions. Grass seed was prepared, as elsewhere in the world, by a process of threshing or beating to remove the seed, winnowing to remove the husks by throwing inhe air, then grinding into a flour using special grinding stones before baking into damper-like loaves.


Aboriginal medicine was based on the mediation of supernatural forces by those with specialist skills (medicine men and women). The body was animated by spirit(s) that can be lost, taken, or damaged by other spiritual forces. Illness was therefore supernatural in origin and healers were ‘clever’ people who were engaged with the lawful, therapeutic and spiritual aspects of community life.[16]

Continuous with medicine in the West and the civilizations of China and India, Aboriginal medicine was performed by high status individuals with unique skills and knowledge. Remedies and treatments were also overwhelmingly plant based.

It seems that fatal epidemic disease, so characteristic of dense and settled populations with domesticated animals, was not a feature of nomadic lifestyles.[15]

Illness was treated by ‘healers’ skilled at communication and familiar with plant treatments and the ritual remedies used to deal with illness attributed to sorcery. The Aboriginal pharmacopoeia was vast and has been best recorded in tropical and desert regions.[17] Ailments to be treated included sores and skin infections, digestive and respiratory problems, cuts and fractures, headaches, coughs and diarrhoea as well as post-natal care. Treatments included drinks, potions, oils, washes and aromatherapy.

As in other cultures a range of psychotropic (mood-altering) substances were used which included the fermented sap of the cider gum in Tasmania, honeysuckle and grass trees in WA. There were arrange of specially prepared ‘tobaccos’ that were formed into chewing quids using wood ash and ar range of additives but the most popular

In the late 1960s it had been determined that at least 124 native species of plants had been used by Aboriginals for medicinal purposes although this would have been divided across the continent by region. Webb’s survey indicates many of these, such as remedies for diarrhoea, ointments, coughs, contraceptives and narcotics accord with the findings of modern pharmacy but others would have had little effect. The sap of cider gum was collected in quantity and tasted like sweet cider. Bottlebrush honey could be sucked and sweet manna of peppermint gum dissolved in water.

Nicotine-rich Native tobacco, Duboisia hopwoodii, generally known as Pituri was chewed as a wad and reported by Wills to be “highly intoxicating”: it was a mojor item of exchange along central Australian trade routes, growing in he Channel Country. Flowering in August its leaves and dry stems were harvested and dried and transported in net bags. Narcotics were also used for hunting and fishing, especially in central Australia, pituri placed in waterholes would stupefy emus, along rivers in pools it could stun eels. Barringtonia racemosa had a bark which, when crushed, was used to poison water holes as were the pods and leaves of Tephrosia.

Torres Strait islanders smoked and salted meat, perhaps Aboriginals had not absorbed this or felt it was useful.

In the arid and semi-ariz zone across the centre of the continent it was seed that made up the major part of the diet. In the tropics roots and tubers were eaten in the wet season. In the south-east the Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata) was plentiful and an hour’s work would have been sufficient to gather food for the day.[10]

Punk was a bracket fungus (Laetiporus portentosus, White Punk) which grows on living eucalypts, dry specimens can smoulder for long periods and it was an extremely effective way for Aboriginals to transport fire: it was also eate when fresh.[11] Grasstrees were the source of resin used as a glue in the construction of artefacts.

Among the greens were Portulaca oleracea used also by explorers like Gregory and Mueller.

In the tropics it was the potato-flavoured Long Yam (Dioscorea transversa), that was the staple.
Energy-rich nectar was licked from the compound flowers of plants like bottlebrushes, banksias, hakeas, grasstrees and some grevilleas or dipped into water to make a sweet drink.
Water was obtained from the root and pith of the bottletree and baobab.
A number of plants requied special preparation to remove toxins, being put through a process of grinding, leaching, fermentation and baking into biscuit-like loaves, this included the removal of alkaloids like cycasin from cycad seed and in the preparation of nardoo (Marsilea spp.) for feasting. A paste made out of the fine seed of Portulacca oleracea, Munyeroo, was popular in desert regions.
Grass seed was prepared, as elsewhere in the world, by a process of threshing or beating to remove the seed, winnowing to remove the husks by throwing inhe air, then grinding into a flour using special grinding stones before baking into damper-like loaves.

Folk taxonomy

Plants and their names were embedded in Aboriginal languages largely according to their appearance, qualities, where they were found, how they were used and their seasonality. In this there was little difference from other cultures except in matter of degree. Many place names contained a plant name or referred to a plant product; the names of people (each person could have several names depending on the particular circumstance) often included plant names or terms; along with the names of people and animals, planta and their names were embedded in the Dreaming stories and therefore in the spirituality of the landscape.

Psychoactive plants

Pituri was both a stimulant and a suppressant of hunger and thirst so popular when out hunting, its active ingredients being the addictive alkaloids nicotine and nor-nicotine. It was traded mostly through the Lake Eyre basin which includes the centre of supply in the Mulligan region of SW Qld but extending into SA and the NT. Though this was the most widely used chewing ‘tobacco’ there were a range of other plants that were processed with selected wood ashes and formed into wads which included assorted additives notably Rock Isotome (Isotoma petraea). A range of tobaccos with mild narcotic properties were used (both the true tobacco genus Nicotiana and others) and were sometimes smoked in Chinese-style opium pipes, and even pipes like the communal smoking pipes of Papuan natives, which are assumed to have been introduced by the Macassan fishermen.[2]


Poison corkwood: branches in waterfish in lagoonsCoastal NSW
Broughton Willow-wattle: branchesfishW NSW
Burdekin plum, Damson Plum, Emu apple, Fish-killer Tree, Gidgee Gidgee & othersfishNorth
as crushed timber, leaves and bark
Pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii): foliage, leaves & twigs in waterwaterholes, emuWestern Desert, C. Australia
Hickory Wattle (Acacia penninervis)fishE. NSW
Sallywood: leavesfishE. NSW
Coastal Wattle (Acacia sophorae): leavesfishE. NSW
Desert Poplar: branches & leavesgame, wild dogsGoldfields of WA
Wild Indigo: leaveswaterholes, emusNorthern WA
Freshwater Mangrove: mashed barkfishNorthern WA
Pindan Wattle, Soapy Tree: pounded podsfishNorthern WA
Fish-poison Pea: foliagefishNorthern WA
Spinifex (Triodia): foliagefishNorthern WA

Respect for the sacred Banyan (Ficus virens) may have been inherited from other cultures.[10]

Pre-European plant introduction

As organic matter soon degrades archaeological evidence on the use of plants is poor so our knowledge relies heavily on the reports of early settlers, explorers, government officials, ethnobotanists and anthropologists (especially those who lived with the communities) and other academics.

There is little evidence to suggest more than a few plant and animal introductions as a result of Aboriginal migration and trade before European settlement, with the exception of the tamarind and dingo (see Pre-European plant introduction).

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Plants as primary producers were for Aboriginals (as they are for all of us today) the source of our life-sustaining energy, either consumed directly or indirectly as animal meat. Almost all Aboriginal activity, apart from ceremony, was dedicated to acquiring food directly from the land. This contrasts with the ~ 5% of Western societies who are employed in jobs to do with the land and plants. Modern ‘westerners now experience plants largely through their gardens and urban landscapes.

Aboriginals undoubtedly manipulated the occurrence and abundance of the plant resources they accessed – not only by fire-stick farming but by seeding, replanting yams, damming streams, artificially pollinating flowers etc.

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