Aboriginal Plants for Food, Tools and Medicine in Melbourne

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Note also several recipes for cooking warrigal greens, lilly pilly below!

Garden Drum: http://gardendrum.com/2013/02/05/top-5-edible-bush-tucker-plants/

Bush Food Shop – order your bushtucker on-line http://www.bushfoodshop.com.au/








Swamp Paperbark  –Melaleuca ericifolia
Nectar from the flowers is an important food source for local birds and insects.

Lilly pilly bushtucker gathered by Melbourne Walks

Lilly pilly bushtucker gathered by Melbourne Walks

The tree has whitish papery bark that peels off in strips. Aborigines used bark from mature trees for rugs, bandaging and thatching. Oil from the leaves was used to treat coughs and colds (smell), and stems were used for spears and digging sticks. (Melaleucas were referred to as “tea-tree” by the early settlers and tea was made from the leaves)

Kangaroo Grass –Themedatriandra
A perennial grass forming dense masses, this is one of Australia’s most widespread grasses. The grass here has been grown from seeds from remnant vegetation found on the old Observatory site by the main entrance to the RBG, so gives us a real connection between past and present.

In summer, Aborigines would gather seeds and grind them into flour which, when mixed with water, was cooked to make damper. Dense clusters of shiny bright brown spikelets form on wiry stems which were used to make twine for fishing nets. Tussocks recover vigorously after fire and this grass was a staple food of kangaroos on the basalt plains.

 Hop Goodenia –Goodenia ovata
An infusion of leaves and twigs has been shown to have possible anti-diabetic properties.  Aboriginal mothers gave an infusion of the leaves to their babies to make them go to sleep.

 Sticky Hop Bush –Dodonaeaviscosa
Papery red seed capsules were used by European settlers as “hops” in beer making. The Aborigines used parts of the plant as a local anaesthetic, chewed the leaves to relieve tooth-ache and bound them on their skin to treat stings. Apparently boiled root juice was applied to sore ears.

 Bulrush, Cumbungi, Narrow-leafed Cumbungi –Typhadomingensis
A staple food source for indigenous people throughout South-Eastern Australia. The floury rhizomes were steamed in earth ovens or roasted in fires, the edible portions consumed, then the tough fibres that remained were scraped with mussel shells and made into twine. The women rolled the moistened fibres on their knees to form long continuous strands. These were then woven together to make stronger 2 or 3 ply string. Young succulent leaf bases were also eaten, giving a pea like flavour. If the water was murky or polluted, it became tainted and inedible. Leaves were used by the local people to make eel traps and baskets and more recently for chair caning.

 Blackwood – Acacia melanoxylon
Fibre was used for fishing lines. Leaves were used for dyeing material. Bark was heated and then infused in water for bathing

Kangaroo apple bush medicine gatherd by Melbourne Walks

Kangaroo apple bush medicine gatherd by Melbourne Walks

joints afflicted with rheumatism. Bark also has good tanning properties. The hard wood was fashioned into clubs, spear throwers, boomerangs, and shields, and more recently, fine furniture.

 Small-leafed Clematis – Clematis microphylla
‘TAARUUK’ Gunditjmara.
The tubers were roasted and then kneaded into dough. The leaves, when crushed, were used as an inhalant for headaches. Root fibers were used for making string.
Note: these plants are on the Australian National Botanic Gardens list as poisonous both internally and externally.

 Yam Daisy –Microserislanceolata
This small Grassy Woodland plant looks insignificant, but it was extremely important to the indigenous people – its tubers (round, or like a carrot) were probably the most relied-upon staple food for the Aborigines of Victoria. The plant was mentioned frequently in the early European accounts of Victorian Koori diet. Tubers are edible cooked or raw. When raw, they taste crisp and bland. They were mostly cooked in rush baskets in ground ovens overnight; cooked this way they produce a sweet syrup and are very good to eat. Yam daisies were once abundant on grassy plains, up as far as the snow line.A settler in 1840 described “millions of murnong or yam all over the plain”, but it can now only be found in small isolated patches.  What happened to it?
When sheep were introduced, they dug up the tubers with their noses and trampled and hardened the soil so that it no longer allowed regrowth. After 1859 the rabbit added to the depredations of the stock.

 Running Postman–Kennediaprostrata
Aboriginal people sucked the sweet nectar from flowers, and also used the stems as a twine.

 Water Ribbons  –Triglochinprocerum
Aboriginal people gathered the sweet underground tubers, which were eaten raw.

 River mint  –Menthaaustralis
POANG-GURK – “bad smell” Tjapwurong
River mint grows throughout the state along the edges of streams and rivers. The leaves have a spearmint aroma and flavour. Leaves were crushed in the hands and the vapour inhaled for colds and coughs. Also used to abate stomach cramps, and as a food flavouring. Sometimes it was used as a lining in earth ovens to add flavour to the food.  White to purple flowers appear in spring and summer.

 Burgan, Kanuka (NZ) – Kunzeaericoides
Kangaroo spears, fighting sticks, waddies and fighting boomerangs were made from the wood.

Edible matt rush leaves gathered by Melbourne Walks

Edible matt rush leaves gathered by Melbourne Walks

Kangaroo Apple – Solanum lanciniatum,
New Zealand Nightshade – Poroporo

A tall shrub with leaves that resemble a kangaroo paw in shape. The flowers are purple, and the fruits change from a yellow-green to dull orange when ripe. The fruits of many species of Kangaroo Apple were an important food for Aboriginal people, but must be eaten when they are completely ripe. The fruit would sometimes be placed in sand to ripen before being eaten.
Additional information: The fruit is poisonous when it is not ripe due to the alkaloid solanine. In the Soviet Union, Kangaroo Apples are farmed for this alkaloid, which is extracted from the leaves, to produce oral contraceptives and anabolic steroids. This plant belongs to the same genus as the potato, tomato, and eggplant.

 Bulbine Lily –Bulbinebulbosa
PIKE -Coranderrk
The tubers of the Bulbine Lily are one of the sweetest lily roots and were eaten all year round (probably after being cooked first).In Spring a spike of yellow star like flowers appears.

 Chocolate lily –Dichopogonstrictus
The chocolate lily grows abundantly around Melbourne. Each plant produces a small bunch of tasty tubers, which were roasted before being eaten. The small purple flowers have a strong chocolate smell.

 Pale Vanilla Lily–Arthropodiummilleflorum (and Lilies generally)
This Lily, and most other native members of the lily family, produce white, bittersweet tubers on their roots which were dug up by Aboriginal women and used as a staple food. Tubers are edible raw or roasted. The plant has a strong scent of vanilla, especially on warm days.

 Pale Flax Lily – Dianella longifolia
Edible berries when ripe. Fruit have a sweet flavour, which becomes nutty once seeds are chewed. Leaf fibres were used to make strong string and baskets.

 Prickly Currant Bush – Coprosma quadrifida
MORR – Coranderrk
The Prickly Currant Bush grows in the tall forests over much of Victoria. From January to March it produces many small, sweet, currant-like fruits with a thin layer of flesh around a seed almost as large as the fruit itself.

 Austral Indigo –Indigopheraaustralis
In Spring the plant produces beautiful mauve pea-shaped flowers. It gets its name from the strong blue dye the Aboriginal people extracted from the flowers. The roots were crushed and placed in water as a fish poison.

 Black She-oak –Allocasuarinalittoralis
WAYETUCK – Wurundjeri
An important wood for making boomerangs and other implements such as shields and clubs. A boomerang made out of wood from the Drooping She-oak has been found in South Australia and dated at 10,000 years before present. The young shoots and cones were sometimes eaten, and could be chewed to relieve thirst. The mat of fallen needle-like foliage under she-oaks was considered a safe place to leave children as snakes are said to avoid these areas. The Black She-oak was one of the first trees to be harvested by the Europeans as the wood burns easily and was in great demand for bakers’ ovens.

 Blackwood – Acacia melanoxylon
BURN-NA-LOOK – Wurundjeri
The hard wood was fashioned into shields and spear-throwers. The bark was heated and then infused in water for bathing joints afflicted with rheumatism. Positioned around the back of the promontory.Flowers from July – October. Flowers are cream coloured balls.

 Grass Tree – Xanthorrhoea australi.
BOWAT, BAGGUP – Wurundjeri
Copious amounts of nectar can be harvested from the numerous flowers in the flower stalk.  Seeds were crushed to make flour.  Soft white leaf bases (containing 5% sugar) were eaten and have a sweet nutty taste.  Trunk resin used to attach spearheads to shafts, etc.  Edible grubs found near the base.  Fire could be made by rubbing the dried flower stalk with a piece of hard timber, igniting the fine wood dust inside.  Flower spikes were also used as a spear shaft.

 Prickly Paperbark – Melaleuca styphelioides
BUNU – Lake Hindmarsh
The thick soft bark was used for roofing, blankets, rain capes, bandages, plates, caulking for canoes, rafts to take material across rivers, slings to carry babies, and padded rings to carry loads on heads. Leaves crushed and sniffed for colds and headaches. An infusion of the leaves was used as a wash for skin irritations.

 Casuarina – Casuarina cunninghamiana
ANGANY – Ngan’gikurunggurr (Daly River, Top End of Northern Territory)
The timber is very good firewood that will burn all night. As the wood is very strong it was also used for making digging sticks.

 Cabbage Palm–Livistonaaustralis.
Twine made from the leaf fibres was used to make bags, baskets, fishing lines and nets.  Baskets made from leaves.  The growing heart of the crown was eaten, though this will kill the plant.
Additional Information: Palm tree grows to 30m tall. Flowers Aug-Sept. It is the only native palm that occurs naturally in Victoria.

  Soft Tree Fern–Dicksoniaantarctica.
The upper part of the trunk was split open and the soft pithy tissue which is rich starch, eaten either raw or cooked.
Additional Information – Dicksoniaceae – Early witnesses describe the core as a turnip-like substance as thick as a man’s arm, tasting variously bitter, sweet, astringent or “like a bad turnip”.  Removal of the core kills the fern. Crowns are a favourite campsite for possums. The sap of the young fronds was placed onto insect bites to relieve the itchiness and pain.

 Silver Wattle – Acacia dealbata
MUYAN – Wurundjeri
WARRARAK -Djadja wurrung
This wattle likes living near river banks. The Wurundjeri people hold great symbolism for the wattle. The seasonal changes in a plant’s development are read as indicators. When the wattle flowers fall it is time to fish for eels. Wattle blossoms will coat the slow moving Yarra at this time. Eels feed on a particular grub that lives in the wattle flowers. This feeding is part of the eels preparing for the autumn migrations, and a good time to catch a well fed eel! The wattle is also used to symbolise Elders, and is one of the plants used in tanderrum ceremonies. It is a plant where every part is used – blossoms, gum, seed, bark and wood. Wood was used to make stone axe handles. Gum was dissolved in water to make a mild sweet drink and also mixed with ash for use as resin. http://www.worldwidewattle.com/schools.php

 Short-finned eel – Anguilla australis
Caught, using traps woven from bulrushes, or poked from sunken logs using lawyer vine stems, and eaten.  In fresh water, men would muddy shallow water and feel for eels with their feet.  Hand nets used in salt water.  Spears sometimes used.  Tortoises in the lake were also caught and eaten.
Additional Information – Anguillidae – For pains in the joints fresh skins of eels were wrapped around the area, flesh side inwards.  (The same cure was very common in Scotland for a sprained wrist.). Eels are nocturnal fish. Females grow to around 1m in length, weighing approx 3kg. The females prefer freshwater, the males live in the sea. When the eels reach sexual maturity (10-20 years for females, 8-12 years for males) they migrate distances of up to 3000km to the Coral Sea where they spawn. It is believed the females die after spawning. The females can release more than 2 million eggs which float in the currents down the east coast of Australia. The eggs hatch into glass eels which migrate down the coast and into the estuaries. The glass eels that migrate up the rivers into the lakes and swamps develop into females, the ones remaining around the estuaries develop into males. Short finned eels migrate from the RBG from late summer to autumn. If an eels water supply is drying up it may travel up to 1.5km over land to find another source.

Possums and birds eggs
Different species of possums and birds nest in hollow trees of many species, such as the Red Flowering Gum – Corymbiaficifolia, and the River Red Gum – Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If the tree needed to be climbed the men usually did it.  Birds’ eggs were usually eaten raw.  Possums, which sleep during the day were caught, killed, gutted, skinned and cooked in coals before being eaten.  The skins were sewn together to make cloaks or rugs.

 Fruit bats or grey-headed flying fox
A greatly appreciated food source for Aborigines and some pioneers.Usually roasted whole in coals, only the wings being removed first.Skin not eaten. The flesh has an excellent flavour resembling chicken.

Ducks have also long been an important food source for Aboriginal people. They were caught in a variety of ways, often speared or brought down with boomerangs as they fed. Katherine Parker describes in detail the way ducks were caught by the Ualayai people of the Barwon River Wetlands in the 1890s:
“Ducks were trapped, too, by making bough breaks across the shallow part of the creek, with a net across the deep part from break to break. A couple of the men would go up stream to hunt the ducks down, and some would stay each side of the net armed with pieces of bark. The hunters up stream frightened the ducks off the water, and sent them flying downstream to the trap. Should they seem flying too high as if to pass, the men would throw pieces of bark high in the air, imitating, as they did so, the cry of hawks. Down the ducks would fly, turning back; some of the men would whistle like ducks, others would throw the bark again, giving the hawk’s cry, which would frighten the birds, making them double back into the net, where they were quickly despatched by those waiting.”
Ducks can also be caught by stealth, which involves a swimmer grabbing the ducks feet and pulling them under the water.

Common Long-necked Turtle: Chelodinalongicollis
Turtles were caught and eaten. Eggs were collected from the edges of rivers and wetlands during spring.

Possum fur: used to make twine.

Shells: used for cutting

Bone: used to pierce hides for sewing from the sinews from a kangaroo tail.

Stone: Certain kinds collected and chipped to make a wide range of implements for cutting, weapons, cooking etc.

From the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Education Service


Warrigal Greens – also known as Warrigal Spinach, New Zealand Spinach or even Botany Bay greens – were one of the first native Australian vegetables to become popular with European settlers. Looking for ways to fight scurvy, Captain Cook encouraged his men to eat them, and many convicts owed their lives to the spinach-like plant. The plant was taken back to England by the botanist Joseph Banks and became popular there for a time. Warrigal Greens can be eaten just like English spinach. We prepare it as a vegetable side dish with butter, garlic and nutmeg, include it in a quiche, pesto, dhal or saute it in meat juices. Some caution should be taken with Warrigal Greens, as the leaves do contain toxic oxates, which can be harmful if consumed in large quantities. To remove the oxates it’s a good idea to blanch the leaves for 3 minutes or so, then rinse the leaves in cold water before using them in salads or for cooking.


2 cloves garlic

½ cup roasted and chopped macadamia nuts

3 ½ cups Warrigal Greens, blanched and chopped.

1 tsp salt

½ tea spoon black pepper

Generous cup of macadamia oil

¾ cup grated parmesan cheese

Method: Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.


2 Tbsp water

1 med onion chopped

1 ½ cups Warrigal Greens spinach, (boiled and chopped)

Whole meal pastry

¾ cups skim milk

2 eggs

½ cup grated cheese

¼ tsp ground pepper

1. Heat oven to 220c.

2. heat water and add onion and the spinach

3. spray quiche dish with cooking spray

4. roll out pastry and line dish

5. Beat together eggs and milk and add cheese and spinach mix and add pepper and mix well. Pour mixture into dish

6. Bake at 220c for 5 minutes and then reduce to 160c for a further 25-30 minutes or until set.

7. Serve hot or cold with a salad.


 Kangaroo and Warrigal Greens

2 kangaroo fillets
100ml honey
100ml beer
120 g Warrigal Greens
3 Tbs macadamia nut oil

Juice of 1/2 lime
Salt and pepper
Pinch wattle seed powder, for garnish (optional)

Plum sauce (or use a good quality bottled plum sauce).

200g Illawarra plums 100g sugar
200ml water
1 red chilli, sliced
1 Tsp crushed garlic
1/2 onion, diced
1 Tsp brown sugar
Method: Slice kangaroo fillet into thin slices, and place into a bowl. Add honey and beer. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

In a small saucepan, add plums, sugar and water. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Pour into a blender and puree.
For the sauce, heat macadamia oil in a pan, add diced onion, garlic and chilli. Sauté until transparent, add brown sugar and plum puree and allow mixture to reduce.

Place fillet onto a very hot chargrill or griddle pan, and brush with macadamia nut oil. Cook for 1 minute on each side, and season with salt and pepper. Do not over cook the kangaroo, as the meat will toughen.

To serve, toss greens in a bowl with a sprinkle of cracked pepper, macadamia nut oil and lime juice. Centre on a serving plate, and place kangaroo over the greens. Drizzle sauce over kangaroo. Dust the rim of the plate with wattle seed powder.

Matt Preston
December 1, 2009

8 cups lilly pilly berrie
1 kg green apples
1/2 cup lemon juice

Wash the Lilly Pilly berries in cold water, removing any leaves, grit or spiders’ webs. Drain the berries and put them into a large saucepan or stockpot (8-litre capacity minimum).
If using store-bought apples, scald them in very hot water to remove any excess wax. Cut the apples into 1cm chunks and add them – seeds, core and all – into the pan. Add enough water to just cover the fruit and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pan and continue cooking for 30–40 minutes, until fruit is very soft. Allow to cool a little. Strain the juices from the cooked fruit into a bowl using a sieve lined with three layers of muslin (or use a new chux cloth). Reserve the juice.
Bundle the drained fruit in more muslin (a bit like a plum pudding) and secure with string. Tie the bundle of fruit to the handle of a wooden spoon and hang it over a deep bowl or pan. Allow any remaining juices to drip into the pan overnight, but don’t be tempted to squeeze or apply pressure – this can result in a cloudy jelly. Next day, discard the bundle of solids. Add the first quantity of strained juice to the batch extracted overnight and transfer it into a clean saucepan or stockpot. Warm gently over medium heat and once the liquid has reached simmering point, add sugar at an equal measure to the quantity of juice. Stir gently until the sugar has dissolved then add the strained lemon juice. Don’t worry if the mixture appears cloudy at this point, the sugar will help to clarify it as it cooks. Boil the mixture rapidly, stirring as it thickens to prevent burning and to minimise the risk of the jelly bubbling over, until setting point has been reached, which can take up to an hour. If the jelly will not set, jamsetta or a similar pectin product can be used, following packet instructions. Ladle into sterilised jars and seal immediately. Cook’s tip: The boiling process may produce a foamy scum; this is okay while cooking but make sure you skim off the scum using a large stainless steel spoon before bottling.

http://blogs.hht.net.au/cook/recipe/lilli-pilli-jelly/; http://www.bestrecipes.com.au/recipe/lilly-pilly-jelly-L9046.html




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