Cairns is surrounded by lush old growth rainforests. These rainforest plants were used as tools, food, medicine and fibre by local indigenous tribes. There was an Aboriginal rainforest plant use area at the Cairns Botanic Gardens that showcased some of these plants.
Areas like these are important. In the initial set up of this space, traditional knowledge would have been passed on and plants found. By establishing an area like this, a living library is created. There were informative signs throughout the garden.
I had seen some of the plants here in my area back home. (I live in sub-tropical South East Qld). One plant was Lomandra which is a grass that can be used for weaving. I have done weaving workshops with an experienced weaver. She knows a lot about native plants that can be used for weaving. We once made dilly bags from Lomandra fibre. (Actually mine was a half-finished attempt as the technique is fiddly and I’m not that great a weaver!)
Black beans trees and Blue Quandong trees are common in our local state forest. My kids love collecting the black bean seed pods and using them as boats. The seeds can be eaten but only after complex preparation.
Blue Quandong seeds are used as necklaces and anklets. The blue fruit is edible.
King Ferns are majestic looking to me – I think it’s because of the size of their fronds. There were two King Ferns in the gardens. The smooth swollen base of a King Fern is edible. The fronds were described as starchy so I’m thinking they are edible as well.
There was a huge Raintree (Albizia saman) as well. This tree is not used traditionally here but it was in the rainforest area. It caught my attention as soon as I walked near it. The trunk was massive. It reminded me of an elder – beautiful, old and wise.
Paperbark trees remind me of childhood. We used to tear strips from these trees and use the bark in our games. I love the texture and colour of this bark. Traditionally the bark was used for roofing, water containers and liners for baskets or mats.
Wait-a-while/Lawyer Cane is a medicine plant. This plant’s young tips are chewed and swallowed to stop dysentery. Sap drunk to relieve colds.
The fish poison tree’s name says it all. The young nuts and green growth were crushed and placed in water to kill fish. I had also seen this tree grown as streetscaping in Cairns. I had seen box type fruit on the ground which looked really interesting but I didn’t know the name of the tree it came from. When doing some research for this blog post, I saw a picture of same box fruit in an article about this tree.
What time is it?
Jirngun * / Mat Rush is flowering so it’s time to collect the eggs of Djarruga * / Yellow-footed scrubfowl.
Yiwurra * / Black Bean and Barrgal * / Blue ginger fruits are ripe so it’s time to catch Wawun * / Australian Brush-turkey
Nature’s events in the rainforest were the calendar used by rainforest Aboriginals to tell them what foods and products were available. Like the supermarkets of today the rainforests contained a variety of foods, a natural pharmacy for medicines and a hardware section for tools, weapons and building supplies.
Rainforest Aboriginals were hunters and gatherers, travelling seasonally through the forest gathering food and raw materials from specific areas. In poor seasons, poisionous plants were detoxified to provide needed food. Detoxification is often long and complicated, sometimes taking 5 – 6 days to complete. Most plants were sliced and crushed into a paste or flour, then leached in running water for a set period of time, then made into an edible flour that was cooked and eaten.
*Djabugay – the language of the Yirrganydji, coastal people to the north of Cairns.
Thanks to Cairns Regional Council for the information on this sign. It shows how connected indigenous tribes were with their environment. Through the process of observation and co-relating natural events they were able to tell when it was time to harvest what they needed.
My morning spent wandering the Aboriginal rainforest plant use area was an interesting one. I find it fascinating learning what plants were traditionally used for. If you are in Cairns and looking for activities to do, I would recommend a visit to the Cairns Botanic Gardens.
- A reminder that many of these plants can be toxic if not prepared correctly. That is why it is important for traditional knowledge to be preserved and necessary to have accurate guidance before eating any bush plants.
Are there any indigenous living libraries in your area? We would love to hear about them. Please feel free to share in the comments below.