Wattles in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures
‘Traditional uses of Australian acacias’
By Suzette Searle©
We have much to learn from the first Australians who experimented with and used acacias growing around them. Through trial and error over the last 65,000 years or so, indigenous Australians developed detailed knowledge about which acacias they found best for particular uses.
They used acacias routinely for a very wide range of purposes: from food and medicines, to utensils such as digging sticks and barbs, weapons (clubs, shields, boomerangs, spear throwers, spear shafts and heads), for musical instruments such as clap sticks; firewood, ash, glues, string, dyes and waterproofing, sandals and head decorations, ceremonial items and seasonal signals. And this knowledge was taught word-of-mouth from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years.
We will never know how much traditional knowledge has been lost since European invaders dispossessed indigenous family groups from their traditional lands. They were often forced to replace their traditional hunting and gathering with different ways of living, different medicines and different foods. Written records of existing traditional knowledge are far from complete (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001). And there is particular knowledge with spiritual significance or related to ritual or ceremonial uses that will never be made publicly available – it is only known by and passed on to those entitled to know.
Early European explorers, colonial settlers and scientists did write down some of the practices they saw and heard about the ways indigenous Australians used acacias. Some colonial doctors, impressed by the ‘healing’ powers of acacias, commonly used them to treat dysentery, diarrhea and sore eyes (Wickens and Pennachio 2001). However it wasn’t until the late 1900s that a number of more comprehensive reports of indigenous use of Australian plants for food and medicine in particular regions were published (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001). Some were researched and written by local groups of indigenous Australians and others by academics and government researchers (Wickens and Pennachio 2001). And it is only over the last few decades that plants, including acacias, used by indigenous Australians, have begun to be studied and screened, and in some cases cultivated, for their medicinal (antibiotic, anti-pesticidal, anti-herbicidal and anti-tumour activity) and nutritional properties (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001).
Indigenous knowledge recorded to date shows that different groups across Australia had different ecological and biological knowledge. Different groups used the same acacias for different purposes, or selected different acacias for the same purpose. Some acacias were of no particular use and others were avoided because of their toxicity.
How commonly acacias, rather than other plants, were used by indigenous communities depended upon what was readily available and easiest to prepare. For example, peoples in the Daly River area (Northern Territory) preferred to eat plants with fleshy fruit that was generally sweet and required little, if any preparation (Marrfurra et al. 1995). In north Queensland, only two of the 240 native food plant species commonly used in foods were acacias used for seed (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001). Similarly in Victoria, acacia gum was a more important food source than acacia seed (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001). However in the arid areas in central Australia where acacias are abundant and other food sources are limited, staple foods were prepared from acacia seed, gums, and roots and associated insects (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001) despite the effort involved to prepare them.
As stated by Peter Latz (2001):
’Central Australian wattles are probably unique in the world in being the dominant organism over most of the deserts’ various habitats. They range from being large long-lived trees which live in undisturbed habitats, to smaller quick-growing shrubs which thrive in highly disturbed areas. Because wattle seed from more than 30 species was such an important part of their diet, central Australian Aborigines had an intimate knowledge of all aspects of their utilization, including use of fire to maximise production.’
The following briefly describes some of the medicinal, food and other uses indigenous Australians found for acacias. (Botanical names are used to avoid confusion when species have the same common name, but when first mentioned, a common name for an acacia species is given, if known).
Beware if you are tempted to sample the wattle in your backyard as bush tucker or for medicinal purposes: many acacia species contain toxins that require extensive preparation before they can be used, and others should never be used.
Preparations from at least 30 of the more than 1,200 acacia species in Australia were traditionally used by indigenous Australians for medicinal purposes (Wickens and Pennachio 2001). Different parts of the acacia plant; leaves, branchlets, bark, gum, roots, pods and seeds, were prepared in different ways to drink or apply externally to cure ailments. The following examples indicate the range of illnesses treated by indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory and Western Australia using different acacia preparations.
Flu, coughs and colds
The symptoms of flus, coughs and colds were treated with acacia leaves, branchlets or bark freshly prepared as poultices, washes, tonics, or inhalations. For example, a large handful of crushed A. oncinocarpa leaves was made into a decoction drunk for chest infections or used as a wash for fever by people living on Bathurst and Melville Islands (Northern Territory).
To relieve cold and flu symptoms, new season’s leaves and twigs of A. lysiphloia (Turpentine Bush) were either used as an aromatic wash or made into a poultice by heating on embers or hot stones until they were soft and scorching. The poultice was then held firmly over painful areas such as the head or small of the back to relieve the aches from colds and flu.
To clear nasal congestion, a steam inhalation was prepared by boiling a handful of crushed fresh leaves from A. multisiliqua in about 800-900 ml of water. In Western Australia the inner bark of A. tetragonophylla (Dead Finish) was prepared as a decoction and an infusion to be taken for coughs.
An infusion from A. holosericea bark was swallowed for laryngitis and a decoction of A. kempeana (Witchetty Bush) leaves was used as a wash for severe colds. If it was inconvenient to prepare an infusion; while traveling for example, the leaves would simply be chewed to produce saliva that was swallowed (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory1993).
Another acacia used to treat colds, sore throats and headache, was A. estrophiolata (Southern Ironwood). The bark from its smaller roots was crushed and infused with hot water until the liquid became dark red to black. This infusion was then poured over the affected part and rubbed in gently.
Acacias such as A. auriculiformis (Ear-pod Wattle), A. holosericea, A. lysiphloia, and A. pellita (Kankulang) were used to treat itching from a number of skin conditions such as allergies, various diseases and rashes; including those caused by hairy, stinging caterpillars (itchy grubs).
A handful of ripe pods with seed and their funicles attached were crushed and rubbed together with a small amount of water in the palms of the hands to form a soapy lather. The pods and lather were then rubbed vigorously onto the skin where it was itchy (Marrfurra et al. 1995).
A decoction using the inner bark from the smooth younger branches of Acacia estrophiolata was used once daily for sores, boils and scabies and as a splash for inflamed eyes (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory1993).
A red or blackish gum exuded by A. estrophiolata after it was damaged, was softened by kneading under water and applied like an ointment directly to sores and wounds. Hard pieces of gum were sometimes ground to fine powder which was dusted onto skin lesions (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory1993).
Long strips of the root bark of A. estrophiolata and A. tetragonaphylla were moistened with water and wrapped around sores, burns and larger wounds, and used to secure dressings. The stringy bark of A. cuthbertsonii (Silver Witchetty) was easily peeled off into long, tough ribbons and also used to secure dressings or, after moistening allowed to dry firmly in place as splints for fractures.
Warts were removed using the needle-like phyllodes of A. tetragonaphylla. They were used to pierce the base of the wart (perhaps as often as six times) or a number were inserted, and then broken off to leave the fine, sharp phyllode tips embedded in the wart. After four or five days the wart had shrivelled and was easily removed (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory 1993).
Smoke therapy for good health
Smoke therapy was considered good for health in general and helpful to a mother and her new-born child immediately after childbirth and to stop post-partum bleeding. The leaves and twigs of a number of acacias were used in smoke therapy and generally mixed together according to availability. Species included A. aneura (Mulga), A. kempeana (Witchetty Bush), A. ligulata (Umbrella Bush), and A. lysiphloia. The warm smoke was produced by a thick covering of leaves laid over fire or coals placed in a small pit. The mother or patient lay over the leaves and was covered with more branches until they sweated copiously. A new-born child was held briefly over the smoke to promote good health (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory 1993).
Acacias provided a range of traditional foods; from seed to sweet gums to the animals (or their products) that used them for shelter and food.
In arid areas of Australia, seed from about 40 acacia species was used for food (Devitt 1992), although some, such as A. victoriae (Gundabluey) were preferable to others. And there were other acacias such as A. validinervia (Latz 1995) that were never eaten. The high nutritional value and wide availability of seed from various species, especially if the fat-rich seed aril that attached the seed to the pod was retained, made them a valuable resource in arid areas. And this was despite the considerable labour involved in collecting, and depending on species, threshing, cleaning, parching, pounding, winnowing and grinding to produce a flour for mixing with water to make a paste to be eaten either raw or cooked (Devitt 1992; Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001).
Acacia aneura (Mulga) woodlands, widely spread in all mainland Australian states except Victoria (Flora of Australia 2001), are a common habitat for other foods apart from acacia seed e.g. the honey ant, the lerp scale (Austrotachardia acaciae) which exudes ‘honey dew’ that was made into a sweet drink, and the wasp which produces the juicy mulga apple. Kangaroos use mulga woodlands for shelter, and zebra finches nest in the branches. The highly valued witchetty grub (larvae of the Xyleutes moth) is found pupating in the roots of A. kempeana (Witchetty Bush) (Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory1993).
Compared with indigenous people living in arid areas, those in higher rainfall and coastal areas tended to prefer other foods from the wider range readily available to them (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001). For example, only seven acacias of the more than 240 native food plant species were commonly used in foods by North Queensland clans and only two of these acacias had edible seed. The other five acacias produced edible gums and roots (Hegarty, Hegarty and Wills 2001).
Depending on the species, seed was eaten and prepared in different ways by indigenous Australians: young green pods were eaten raw or green pods were roasted or steamed (e.g. A. ramulosa var. linophylla and A. palustris), or dry mature seed was ground into a flour, mixed with a little water and eaten as a paste (e.g. A. murrayana (Colony Wattle) or cooked as a damper (A. aneura has a nutty flavour). Uncooked seed from a small number of species were plucked from the pods and eaten raw as a ‘snack food’ (e.g. A. craspedocarpa, Hop Mulga).
Information about non-Aboriginal use of edible Australian acacia seed is provides elsewhere on Worldwidewattle.
Other traditional uses of Australian acacias
All parts of the acacia plant: branches, wood, bark, gum, flowers, pods, seeds and roots were used for a myriad of everyday purposes. The following briefly describes traditional uses other than medicines and food.
Acacias were used for firewood (e.g. A. auriculiformis, A. aneura) and to make shelters (e.g. A. aneura), weapons and implements. Acacia anuera was favoured for spear throwers, barbs, spear heads, clubs, shields, boomerangs, walking sticks and digging sticks because it rarely splits. Musical instruments such as clap sticks (e.g. made from A. mimula) and toys were made from acacia wood.
Acacia gums (e.g. from A. auriculiformis) were used as glues to make and repair tools and spear throwers, and to waterproof fish, mussel and water rat traps. String and rope, head decorations and sandals were made from the inner bark of species such as A. cuthbertsonii or the bark from younger trees (A. auriculiformis, A. holosericea). Fibre dyes were obtained from acacia roots (A. auriculiformis, A. holosericea, A. leptocarpa) and seed arils (A. colei). Honey dippers were made from crushed and softened bark (A. difficilis, A. dimidiata) or green stems (A. platycarpa) to soak up honey, wax and edible pollens from native bee hives (sugarbag).
Ash from species such as A. aneura, A. calcicola, A. coriacea (Wiry Wattle), A. eutrophiolata, A. ligulata (Umbrella Bush) and A. pruinocarpa was used to make pituri (a ball of chewing tobacco). The young leaves, flowers and flowering stalks of high, nicotine-containing native plants such as Duboisia hopwoodi (widespread in arid regions) and Nicotiana gossei (central Australia) were ground or chewed into a paste and then mixed with acacia ash for a more rapid release and absorption of the nicotine into the bloodstream through the lips and mouth (Latz 1995).
Leaves and pods of acacias were rubbed with water to produce a soapy lather for washing (A. auriculiformis, A. holosericea, A. leptocarpa).
And then there were the fish poisons: leaves, branches, bark, pods and seed from acacias such as A. auriculiformis, A. hemignosta, A. holosericea or A. leptocarpa were placed in small billabongs to poison fish. After a day or two, fish either swam slowly near the surface or asphyxiated dead fish (Wickens and Pennacchio 2002) floated to the surface where they were easily collected, cooked and eaten without any ill effects (Marrfurra et al. 1995).
Acacias were also used as seasonal indicators or calendar plants. For example, when the flowers of A. dealbata (Silver Wattle) growing along the banks of the Yarra River, east of Melbourne (Victoria) fell into the water, it was time to fish for eels that fed on grubs that lived in the wattle flowers. See Wurrundjeri wattles on Worldwidewattle.
Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory. (1993). Traditional aboriginal medicines in the Northern Territory of Australia. Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory of Australia, Darwin.
Bindon, P. and Maslin, B.R. (1984). Preliminary account of Acacia usage by Aborigines in part of the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. pp. 9. Second International Conference on Indian Ocean Studies, Perth, W.A. Australia, 5-12 December 1984.
Devitt, J. (1992). Acacias: a traditional Aboriginal food source in central Australia. In: House, A.P.N. and Harwood, C.E. (eds) Australian Dry-Zone Acacias for Human Food. Proceedings of a workshop held at Glen Helen, Northern Territory, Australia, 7─10 August 1991. CSIRO Publications East Melbourne Australia pp. 37─53.
Flora of Australia 11B Mimosaceae, Acacia part 2. (2001). Melbourne: ABRS/CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
Hegarty, M.P., Hegarty, E.E. and Wills, R.B.H. (2001). Food Safety of Australian Plant Bushfoods. RIRDC Publication No. 01/28. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.
Latz, P. (2001). Traditional use of Acacia by indigenous Australians. Abstract of paper presented at the Dalwallinu Acacia Symposium: 13–14 July 2001.
Latz, P. Bushfoods and Bush Tucker. (1995). Aboriginal plant uses in central Australia. IAD, Alice Springs, NT.
Marrfurra, P. Akanburru,M., Wawul, M., Kumunerrin, T., Adya, H., Kamarrama, K., Kanintyanyu, M., Waya, T., Kannyi, M., Wightman, G. and Williams, L. (1995). Ngan’gikurunggurr and ngan’giwumirri ethnobotany: Aboriginal plant use from the Daly River area, northern Australia. Botanical Bulletin No. 26. Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
Wickens, K. and Pennacchio, M. (2002). A search for novel biologically active compounds in the phyllodes of Acacia species. Conservation Science Western Australia 4(3): 139-144.
Decoction – preparation made by boiling or simmering finely divided plant material in water, usually for 15-20 minutes, and then straining when cool – best used fresh.
Infusion – preparation made by pouring boiling water onto finely divided material and leaving it for some time to steep before straining without pressing the residue – best used fresh.