Re-wilding: deepening our connection with self, place and indigenous culture through local plants

My garden is filled with native bush tucker plants – edible plants that are from this place.  Understanding more about these plants is so important for creating a resilient food system, and living sustainably in Australia.

Red ash, or soap tree, is used in fishing, as soap, to treat conjunctivitis, sties and mouth ulcers, and to make a ligament

Becoming familiar with these plants has been an integral part of my re-wilding journey. Rewilding, is a growing movement about reconnecting with nature – returning to a more natural state of being in the world. It is as much about rewilding our selves as it is rewilding the landscapes we have altered.

Since I moved to this part of Australia in 1993 from Victoria, I have been trying to learn as much as I can about the native plants of this region. I have realised that by getting to know these plants, their stories too, it has helped me to feel at home here – to find a sense of belonging. Wherever we are, getting to know the local plants and animals is a way of connecting to place and culture, and understanding the web of life.

I believe if we begin to understand how things work in nature (ecoliteracy), we will be far more able to work with nature and live in a way that nourishes the interconnected web of life.

My knowledge of local plants was deepened today as I walked through the Maroochy Botanic Gardens with Aunty Bev Hand, a well known Gubbi Gubbi woman who lives locally. She was sharing stories about indigenous plants with participants of the Australian Association of Environmental Educators expo.


As we walked and talked she pointed out so many of the common plants around the region and told us about how they were used, how their names have become place names – Mudjimbah (place of midyims), and how they were important in traditional culture.   She also told us how each indigenous Australian is connected to a plant or an animal as custodians of that species. The symbolism in traditional culture meant that people were always connected to flora and fauna – they could not exist apart from it.

Midyim – a great little plant that has delicious berries around December.

What is written below is a little snapshot of the wisdom she shared today. I have tried my best to share on what she said correctly….

We stopped first at a Bracken Fern along the side of the path which she said indicated ants – they like being around this plant – biting ants. She usually stayed away from this plant, but told us that in case someone did get bitten it’s good to know that the bracken is the remedy. Break off a stem and use some of the sap from the base to rub into the bite.

Squeezing out the juice from the base of the bracken – used to treat ant bites.

This type of ‘companion planting’ often is found in nature – where remedies are close. I remember learning long ago that if you get scratched by a Bunya pine while you are harvesting one of the enormous cones for a feast, grab a leaf of the bleeding heart tree which usually grows nearby, and rub that into the scratches to ease the discomfort.

The name Aunty Bev calls the local native grass, Lomandra, is dilly. I had always heard of dilly bags for carrying things – now it makes sense! Lomandra was often used for weaving and making rope. As we walked, Bev tried to teach a few of us how to make lomandra rope. She made it look easy, but my fingers just felt clumsy. Even more so when she told us that 5 year old children were expected to know how to do this.  I have lots of Lomandra at home, I will practice and practice!

Aunty Bev Hand splitting stems of Lomandra to make rope.

Apparently, all Hibiscus plants are good for rope making too. I recently learnt that even the little rosella plant in my veggie garden is a great plant for rope making. Aunty Bev stopped at a native hibiscus plant and told us that it’s good for more than rope making. You can use it to sooth stomach upsets too – eat the young leaf and fresh new flowering buds.

I was so glad she told us about the mosquito dance where men slap tea tree branches (Leptospermum petersonii) on their back to release the scent. It was late afternoon and the mozzies were starting to come out. I grabbed a handful and rubbed it into my legs – a fabulous repellent.

Tea tree leaves have a strong citronella scent.

If you’re looking to catch some fish, knowing about the Macaranga (Macaranga tanarius) is useful. Macaranga is a pioneer species that grows quickly and provides shade and protection for other slower species. It’s branches are light, straight and flexible.  The Macaranga leaves are used for wrapping fish, and the long branches are used to make straight and lightweight spears that are good for fishing. The wood is so light that it floats together with your catch. The Macaranga is also commonly used as the bottom piece of wood in firelighting.

Large leafed Macaranga has many uses and is a great pioneer in regenerating landscapes.

Aunty Bev grabbed a handful of soap tree (Aphitonia excelsa) leaves and mixed it with a little water to bring up a good lather.  We used to do this a Northey Street City Farm before we had taps and sinks fitted – really effective.  I knew about it’s use in fishing too, but I was fascinated to learn that it is used to treat mouth ulcers as a gargle and a leaf heated on a hot rock was used to treat conjunctivitis and sties. The liquid extracted from the bark is great for making ligaments for aching muscles and sore joints – especially if blended with emu oil.

The back of the leaf is distinctly silvery and soft while the front is shiny green. Easy to pick in the bush.

Cissus vines are water holders. If a stream has run dry,  cut the cissus vine and hold a cup under it. Water drains from the vine – a very useful piece of information to know.  There are grape looking fruits on the vine, but they are very bitter.

The water vine.

By getting to know plants you start to understand more about everything else around you – the soil, the microclimate, the seasons, the wildlife. Bev showed us a native ginger plant that had little chomp-like indentations out of the side of one of the leaves. This she said was an indicator that a type of solitary native bee lives within 500 metres – the bees come and collect the plant materials for their floors and doors.

The notches on this native ginger were made by bees to make their doors and floors. A good sign that local bees are closeby.

All plants and animals are part of the web of life, and are in a constant interplay with the earth. Although sometimes we forget, we are also inextricably linked. Getting to know our plants helps us to know our place and our selves – to connect or reconnect.

My deep gratitude to you for sharing Aunty Bev. I learnt so much today.

7 Responses

  1. Shangri La
    Shangri La at |

    I am kicking myself that I didn't go along to that and I had read something about it a while ago. I have plenty of lomandra as well and would love to be able to learn to weave with it. However there is a bushtucker food workshop at Yandina community garden in June so I am writing that on the calendar! Thank you for sharing – I had no idea about the soap tree.

  2. Phil Johnston
    Phil Johnston at |

    This is a really interesting read…I remember my Dad using bracken on a bull ant bite when I was only about 5 yrs old…he was from north Queensland and white but obviously had learnt some traditional wisdom along the way. I'm really interested in the use of linaments for aches and pains…must try.

  3. Meg Hopeful
    Meg Hopeful at |

    I have a whole row of native gingers that grow happily under our front deck, facing west! I love their beautiful blue berries and white flowers. As do the birds! I will have to go and look to see if I can spot any notches from the bees.

  4. Morag Gamble
    Morag Gamble at |

    That's great. There is just so much to learn about plants and so many many uses.

  5. Morag Gamble
    Morag Gamble at |

    Yes, they do look lush don't they – and so hardy.

  6. Morag Gamble
    Morag Gamble at |

    I hope you have a great time at the Yandina workshop.

  7. rhonda jean
    rhonda jean at |

    I'm happy to call Beverly a good friend. We spent a lot of time together at the Maleny Neighbourhood Centre and she would often burst into song, which I loved. She certainly is a walking encyclopedia and a real tender heart.