Bet you didn’t know there could be contraceptives growing in your back yard. Or if not the yard, then very likely your local park.
The ubiquitous kangaroo apple -which ironically self-seeded not far from our front door – contains steroids used to make more than half the world’s contraceptive drugs.
This was but one of the fascinating floral discoveries made during a recent visit to Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Grovedale.
Medicinal plants have always captivated me. As a teen I recall boiling up lavender and chamomile flowers to make a hair rinse that promised to brighten my locks. Decoctions and infusions of flowers, leaves and bark carrying ancient wisdom. It is all so romantically mysterious.
So when we moved to our bush block it seemed the perfect opportunity to discover the indigenous gems that grew within and to nurture a bush food and medicine trail. Narana is a great place to start learning about the secrets of local plants.
An indigenous garden tour
Once the kids emerged unscathed from a lesson in boomerang throwing, BJ our guide took us through the indigenous gardens, pointing out various medicinal and culinary specimens.
First on the tour was the kangaroo apple, which apparently belongs to the same plant family as potato, tomato, tobacco and eggplant. BJ said it accounts for 55 per cent of the world’s contraceptives and was traditionally used for the same purpose. Named for its kangaroo paw shaped leaves, the shrub bears small fruit that taste like cherry tomatoes when bright orange, but are toxic when green.
Next on the trail was the black wattle; a generous tree providing indigenous tribes with superglue-strength sap, wood for didgeridoos and hunting boomerangs and leaves used to spice up cooking. The sap is used to make a sticky trap to capture birds, and can also be mixed with ash or kangaroo poo and dried to create a strong resin used on tools and weapons such as the woomera.
While the lomandra is in widespread use as a low-maintenance garden fixture, it has a range of more practical uses. The leaves are used to weave baskets and fishnets, the seeds can be crushed into flour for damper and even the roots are edible, apparently tasting like celery.
A useful specimen to have on hand in case of toothache is the hop goodenia. While no one took BJ up on the suggestion, he told us that chewing about 10 leaves would make an adult mouth numb. On a gentler note, he said the leaves could be boiled as a tea for indigestion and made into a paste to rub on babies’ gums during teething.
In terms of taste, the most popular on the tour was the fragrant saltbush; the small leaves tasting of salted spinach and much enjoyed by Narana’s resident emus. Its berries – like teensy currants – are also edible.
Another interesting plant in Narana’s garden is the austral indigo. The seemingly magical fishing plant removes the oxygen from water, rendering fish temporarily unconscious. When they float to the surface, they can easily be scooped up.
Respecting indigenous wisdom
Garden tour over, BJ passed us over to another guide, Millie, who spoke to us about about indigenous history and culture.
Millie explained how the disappearance of many Aboriginal languages has resulted in loss of culture and knowledge, which is traditionally passed on through song, dance and storytelling.
Thankfully, much indigenous wisdom has survived in art, such as the possum blanket exhibited at Melbourne Museum that belonged to Millie’s grandmother. Millie told us how how this blanket’s artwork gives detail not only of bush medicine plants but also the ways to effectively process them.
She said much could be learned about the land – living off it and sustaining it – by asking the local indigenous people about the knowledge gained through generations.
With 250 traditional nation groups across Australia, indigenous links to the land are extremely localised.
“We are often talked about and not to,” Millie said. “We know how to look after the land and we know that if you look after the land it will look after you.”
What are your favourite bush food or medicine plants?