Aboriginal people used plants extensively for food, technology and medicine. Many plants continue to be used for medicine, fibrecraft and making weapons and tools.
Within Milarri is an outdoor performance space and a collaborative sculpture titled Biamie, the Rainbow Serpent by Clive Atkinson, a Yorta Yorta artist, and Domonic Benhura, a Shona artist from Zimbabwe.
This guide was prepared by Serene O'Halloran, Andrew Kuhlmann, Veronica Barnett and Rowena Flynn.
WARNING: People without proper knowledge of these food plants should never attempt to eat them. It could be harmful.
Uses The timber is mainly used to manufacture boomerangs and other implements. The young shoots and cones can be eaten.
Distribution Drooping She-oak is widespread in primary dune scrub, rocky open scrub, red gum and ironbark country. It grows in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation This small erect tree likes well-drained soils and can grow in full sun to partial shade. Once established it can tolerate dry periods and it has dense yellow flowers from March to December. It grows around 4–11 m tall and 3–6 m wide.
Uses In common with other species of stringybark, this tree's outer brittle bark is powdered to serve as tinder to catch sparks when making fire. The inner bark can be used to make a type of coarse string for bags and fishing nets.
Distribution Messmate is widespread in wet, damp, valley and dry sclerophyll forests, and grassy open woodland. It is found in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation Messmates can grow to 35 m and are tall, upright trees with dense canopies. Eucalyptus obliqua prefers moist, well-drained soils but will tolerate dry periods once established.
Uses A dry piece of stem about 60 cm long and 1 cm in diameter was rapidly twirled in a hole made in a flat piece of wood, often the dry flower-stalk of the Southern Grasstree, until friction caused the pith to smoulder. This was then tipped onto some dry stringybark and gently blown to produce a flame. The whole operation took about two minutes. So highly prized were the sticks, called Djelwuck, that they were traded from the mountains right up to the northern tribes on the Murray River. Different materials were used in other parts of Australia to make fire.
Distribution Austral Mulberry is found in cool temperate rainforest and damp sclerophyll forest. It grows in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.
Cultivation This shrub or small tree grows 3 –7 m tall and 4 m wide and requires cool, rich soil. It grows best where there is plenty of water.
Wanduin (Gunaikurnai name for the fruit)
Botanical name:Acmena smithii Family: Myrtaceae
Uses The pale mauve or white berry-like fruit is pleasantly tart and juicy and can be eaten raw as a refreshing snack food. Lilly Pilly fruits were used by early settlers to make jam.
Distribution A. smithii is widespread across east coast rainforests. It grows in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and on King Island.
Cultivation This tree grows between 3–30 m. In cultivation it is a medium tree with a dense canopy that can be pruned to make a hedge. It thrives in cool, moist soils but is adaptable to a range of soil types and conditions. It is resistant to moderate frosts and is one of the lilly pillys least susceptible to the psyllid pests that create a pimpling effect on the leaves.
Moeang (Woi wurrung), Yanun or Yoman (Gunaikurnai), Moyan (Taungurung)
Uses The fibre of this tree can be used to make fishing lines while its timber provides weapons such as woomera, shields and throwing-sticks. It also has medicinal uses: an infusion of its bark can be used to treat rheumatic joints.
Distribution Blackwoods grow in cool temperate rainforests, dry grassy forest, riparian scrub, plains grassland and dry sclerophyll forests. They are found in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation This is a very fast-growing, upright tree with a dense canopy. It can tolerate dryness but thrives in deep, moist soil and can provide excellent screening and shade. It can grow 5–30 m tall and 2–6 m wide.
Uses The timber is used for the manufacture of weapons and tools, while the flowers are soaked in water to make a sweet drink.
Distribution Ironbark is a general name for a number of species of eucalypt that all have dark, deeply-furrowed bark. They grow in the sclerophyll forest and box ironbark woodland of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
Cultivation Ironbarks can grow 10–30 m tall and 10–20 m wide. Once established, these large, upright, spreading trees can withstand dry conditions. They prefer well-drained soils.
Uses Banksia cones can be soaked in water to extract the nectar and make a sweet drink.
Distribution Coast Banksia is found in primary dune scrub and coastal woodlands. It grows in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Cultivation This tree grows 10–20 m tall and 5–10 m wide. It requires well-drained soil and summer watering to become established. The bark becomes gnarled and fissured with age. It is a useful plant for controlling dune erosion.
Uses The unripe berries were used to relieve rashes and sores.
Distribution Mountain Pepper is found in cool wet habits from sea level to alpine areas in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. It grows in mountain gullies and mountainous areas in tall open forests, woodland, sclerophyll forests and coniferous shrubberies.
Cultivation In cultivation this aromatic soft-timbered shrub or tree can grow up to 10 m tall but can be pruned to shape. It has separate male and female plants; it flowers from September to January and fruits ripen in March. It prefers fertile, moist, well-drained, lime-free sites and does best in partial shade.
Uses The fleshy berries can be eaten but only when very ripe, often being placed in sand heaps to ripen. Unripe berries are poisonous. This plant was also used for contraception.
Distribution Kangaroo Apples are found in red gum habitat, wet sclerophyll forests and grassy open forest in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Cultivation This soft woody shrub is fast-growing and requires regular pruning to stop it growing straggly. It grows to 1–3 m tall and 1–4 m wide. It requires well-drained soil in full sun or part shade.
Uses The crushed roots can be used to poison fish. The leaves are also a medicine for skin complaints.
Distribution Austral Indigo grows in all Australian states and territories. It is widespread in damp sclerophyll forests, riparian scrub and grassy open forest.
Cultivation This small shrub grows to 1–2 m wide and tall. It is very attractive in flower with purple, white or mauve sprays from September to December. The flowers can be used as a blue dye. Austral Indigo can adapt to any well-drained soil and requires regular pruning to maintain shape and strength. It is lime tolerant.
Distribution Hemp Bush grows in red gum woodland, rocky sites, riparian scrub and damp sclerophyll forests in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Cultivation An open woody shrub that can grow to 2–4 m wide and 1.5–3 m tall, Hemp Bush prefers moist well-drained soil and will suffer if not watered. Regular pruning is the key to keeping this shrub compact in cultivation.
Uses Men could start fires quickly with carefully chosen equipment. Victorian Christmas Bush can be used as the drill piece in conjunction with the flower stem of Xanthorrhoea australis as the butt piece. The Austral Mulberry is preferred as the drill piece.
Distribution This tall shrub is found in valley sclerophyll forests and damp conditions in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Cultivation This small tree can be pruned into a hedge but needs protection from strong wind and mulching is beneficial. It grows 2–8 m tall and 2–5 m wide.
Burgan (Woi wurrung)
Botanical name:Kunzea ericoides Family: Myrtaceae
Uses The wood can be used to make implements and weapons.
Distribution White Tea-tree is found in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.
Cultivation This fast-growing shrub that is suitable for screening. It can grow 2–5 m tall and 2–4 m wide. Once established, it can tolerate wet and dry conditions, and can be pruned back hard.
Uses In Victoria, people ate the starchy pith from the top part of the stem. They split the stem and scooped out part of the pith, an operation that does not kill the fern.
Both Rough and Soft Tree Fern can be eaten, although Soft Tree Fern tastes better.
Distribution Soft Tree Fern is endemic to Australia and grows in Tasmania, Victoria, NSW and south-eastern Queensland. It thrives in moist areas, predominantly in wet sclerophyll forest and along creeks.
Cultivation In cultivation this tree fern grows best in filtered light on loose well-drained soils with abundant water.
Uses When the pink flowers are gently prodded, the style suddenly flips over. This was used as a source of amusement.
Distribution Trigger Plant is widespread in red gum woodland, plains grassland, dry and valley sclerophyll forests and grassy open forests. It is found in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation In cultivation this tufted perennial can vary in size and will tolerate wet and dry conditions once established. It prefers moist well drained soils in sun or part shade. In the wild, it grows to 20–60 cm tall and 20–30 cm wide.
Baggup (Woi wurrung), Tarndang or Dan Dan (Gunaikurnai)
Uses The roots are eaten and the nectar on the white flowers, when soaked in water, can produce a sweet drink. The resin can be used as a sealant for manufacture of tools and other artefacts, and was used to fix spear or axe heads to shafts. It is also a useful leather tanning agent. The flowering stem can be used as a fire stick and for the manufacture of spears.
In post-colonial times, Southern Grasstree resin found a variety of new uses. These include the manufacture of gramophone records, as a mahogany stain, floor sealant, church scent, and a component in making explosives.
Distribution Grasstrees are found in grassy open habitats of Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation This striking plant is slow-growing-each metre of trunk takes about a century to form-but old Southern Grasstrees can reach several metres in height. They like well-drained soil and tolerate dry conditions once established, recovering well after fire. It has dense white spires of flowers from July to December. This species can be susceptible to Phytophora cinnamomi (cinnamon fungus).
Botanical name: Themeda triandra Family: Poaceae
Uses The stems and leaves can turned into string to make fish nets.
Distribution This perennial tussock grass is found in all Australian states and territories. It grows in plains grassland, red gum habitat, box woodland, grassy woodland and open forest and dry and valley sclerophyll forest.
Cultivation Kangaroo Grass is an attractive, soft grass that grows 40–75 cm wide and 70–90 cm high. Adaptable to most soils, it can be cut back in late winter to replenish growth each third year or so. It does not like wet soils.
Uses The seeds were ground into a paste to make a simple bread.
Distribution Red-fruited Saw-sedge is found in wattle tea-tree scrub and damp sclerophyll forest. It grows in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Cultivation Saw-sedges are important, sometimes exclusive, food plants for caterpillars of several butterflies. They also provide safe habitats for small birds. Gahnia sieberiana grows 1.5–3 m tall and 2–3 m wide. It prefers moist soil but will withstand some drought once established, and is useful to help control soil erosion.
Uses The leaves are used for making baskets. Once picked, the leaves are split down the centre and left to dry for three or more days. Before being worked, they are dampened with water for 24 hours to render them pliable.
Distribution Spiny-headed Mat-rush grows in grassy woodland, Red Gum habitat, dry sclerophyll forests, Coast Banksia woodland and tea-tree heath. It is found in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.
Cultivation Lomandra is now widely planted in Melbourne streets and parks, where it grows 0.5–1 m tall and 0.5–1.2 m wide. This large tussock plant can withstand dry conditions once established and can live in dry shade under trees.
Uses Under the stalk and soft long leaves of the Bulbine Lily is a plump, round, sweet-tasting corm with many thick roots radiating from it. Traditionally, the corm can be eaten all year round and was probably cooked first.
Distribution This perennial herb is widespread in dry and valley sclerophyll forests, Red Gum woodland, and plains grassland in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia.
Cultivation Bulbine Lily prefers moist well drained soil and it will die back to tuberous rootstock in dry weather. If it’s provided with additional water it will continue to grow leaves throughout the year. It grows about 20 60–cm tall and 30–cm wide.
Uses The leaves can relieve skin irritation but may cause blisters unless used in moderation. The roots can be eaten raw and taste peppery. The roots can be also be cooked in baskets and kneaded on a small sheet of bark into dough.
Distribution Small-leaved Clematis is found across Australia except the Northern Territory. This climber grows in grassy low open forests and, Coast Banksia woodland, plains grassland, primary dune scrub and dry sclerophyll forest.
Cultivation This climbing plant requires well drained soil and will scramble up fences and other plants to about 1.5 m. It can grow in sun to part shade.
Uses The Koories around Sydney were said to despise the leaves as food, although the early settlers cooked them as spinach, and thought so highly of them that the plant was taken to Europe and America and cultivated for food. Despite the Sydney account, it is very likely that in other areas this is one of the many plants used by the Koories as greens. It contains poisonous compounds called oxalates and must be cooked properly before eating.
Distribution New Zealand Spinach grows across Australia except the Northern Territory.
Cultivation This easily-cultivated groundcover thrives in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. It is low-growing and spreads about 1–2 m wide.
Uses The leaf can be split into two down the mid-rib and rolled into string for use in tying and basket weaving.
Distribution Flax Lily grows in wet sclerophyll forests in damp conditions. It is found in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Cultivation This perennial plant is very tough once established but prefers moist, cool soil. It can be grown in part shade to full sun and will develop a strong clump of foliage about 0.6–1.5 m tall and 0.5–2 m wide.
Uses This plant is high in medicinal tannin used to treat diarrhoea. Geraniums have tuberous roots like radishes which contain nutritious starch. These roots can be pounded to break down the fibrous texture before being cooked and eaten.
Distribution Native Geranium grows in grassy open forests, riparian scrub, sclerophyll forests and Red Gum habitat. It is found in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Cultivation This prostrate perennial will thrive in damp areas and well-drained soils. With the right conditions it can create a dense mound of foliage about 0.5 m tall and 0.6–1.5 m wide.
Uses The fruits are red when ripe in summer, and were eaten raw; the tiny seeds and sweet pulp can be sucked out from the base. The green leaves were eaten as a salad or were cooked and eaten with meat. They are often salty, but when old are unpalatable because of the tannin they contain.
Inland Pigface was once abundant on the northern plains of Victoria, but was destroyed by cattle and sheep.
Distribution Pigface is common in the primary dune scrub and Coast Banksia woodland of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia.
Cultivation This trailing, low-growing succulent loves sandy soil and is easily propagated from cuttings. Full sun promotes vigorous growth and it can be pruned to shape. It grows 2–3 m wide.
Common Tussock Grass
No recorded Aboriginal name
Botanical name: Poa labillardieri Family: Poaceae
Uses Leaves and stems of the larger tussock grasses can be used for string or basket-making.
Distribution Common Tussock Grass grows in open rocky scrub, Red Gum, box and ironbark habitats and dry sclerophyll forests. It is found in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.
Cultivation This grass grows 0.3–0.8 m tall and flowering stems to 1.2 m tall. It may change colour in different seasons and conditions. It can adapt to a range of soil conditions, and in southern states it can be cut back to basal growth in late winter to promote fresh leaves.
Uses This plant was an important food source. People ate the tubers raw or cooked.
Distribution This plant is common in shallows of freshwater lakes and streams across Australia. It is found within water bodies of swamp scrub, riparian woodland, grassy low open forest and moist sclerophyll forests.
Cultivation Water Ribbons leaves can grow 0.1–2 m long and float on the water surface. This plant likes a lot of rich organic matter and to be submerged when planted.
Djarg (Wemba Wemba and other Kulin languages, Kowat (Gunaikurnai)
Uses A multipurpose plant. The shafts can be used in the manufacture of spears and the leaves can be woven into baskets. Sections of the hollow stems can be strung into reed necklaces or used as nose ornaments. In Gippsland, the sharpened ends of the stems are made into knife-like instruments for skinning animals. The roots can also be eaten.
Distribution Common Reed grows across Australia in wet, brackish soils. It is common in riparian and swamp scrub, and Coast Banksia woodland.
Cultivation This reed can reach 1–3 m tall. It is an attractive waterside plant in cultivation but can take over. This plant can be cut back to the ground at the end of summer to promote new green growth and remove old canes.
Uses A food source in drier country, spore-cases of this water fern appear as the water recedes and detach from the plant as the soil dries out. The spore-cases were roasted and the soft spores were separated out and mixed with water to make a damper.
Distribution Common Nardoo grows in all mainland states in flood plains, bogs and swamps in box and Red Gum woodland, riparian scrub and wetlands.
Cultivation The stalks of this water plant reach 2–30 cm tall. It grows in boggy soil and can cover the surface of shallow ponds. Common Nardoo is dormant during winter in cooler areas, and it can be propagated by spores or by division.
Uses To prepare a tonic used for colds and chest complaints including tuberculosis and as a general restorative, big bunches of the plant were gathered. It can be rubbed on directly for skin complaints or prepared by boiling or soaking in very hot water in a wooden or bark vessel at the edge of the fire.
Distribution Old Man Weed grows in all states including Tasmania. It is rare in some areas and can be found in low soaks adjacent to rivers and in areas prone to flooding.
Cultivation This plant grows about 10–50 cm tall and 30 cm wide. It tolerates full sun to filtered light in a range of soil conditions and can withstand wet conditions. It is fast-growing and sets seed readily.
Poang-Gurk (Djab Wurrung, meaning 'bad smell')
Botanical name:Mentha australis Family: Lamiaceae
Uses The leaves can be used in earth ovens to add flavour to cooked food. People also crush the mint and inhale the aroma to treat coughs and colds.
Distribution River Mint grows across Australia in wet sclerophyll forests and riparian scrub.
Cultivation This small spreading herb can grows well in cool, moist areas on the edges of ponds and paths. It also grows in wet soils.