Plant Profile: Australian Bush Medicine

This article originally appeared in North Journal, Issue 7

Australia has a long history of herbal or 'bush' medicine, although not much of it is widely known. There are hundreds of plants with significant nourishing and healing qualities designed to help humans survive in our characteristically hot and dry climate. The beauty of these plants lies in the simplicity of their preparation, their unique qualities and the encouragement to use all of your senses in the healing process. 

Australian bush medicine is the result of thousands of years of trial and error by one of the oldest living cultures in the world. Medicine was gathered in the bush and the field by healers, usually women. Whatever was available locally was prized and used in abundance to alleviate symptoms of headaches, digestive complaints, colds and flu, bites, wounds and muscle aches. There is highly specialised local knowledge of plants amongst every Aboriginal who has spent time living off the land, however much is held sacred and only passed down verbally, making it hard to find. The truth is there is not much widely available knowledge on Australian medicinal plants, for a variety of reasons. Most people are familiar with Eucalyptus, Tea Tree and Lemon Myrtle but beyond that very little is known. 

Bush medicines are prepared with more holistic and ceremonious methods than their modern counterparts. Different parts of the one plant are treated and prepared in myriad ways; the bark might be boiled to make an antiseptic liquid while the leaves are left to smoulder over a fire, releasing a healing and purifying smoke. Often the leaves were simply crushed and inhaled for an instant uplifting boost or poultices and rubs prepared and smeared over congested chests and inflamed wounds. The ceremonious administration of medicine probably did much in the way of aiding the healing process. Healers would turn to magic in treating more serious illnesses which were thought to be inflicted either physically, from a spirit or as a result of sorcery.
Much of bush medicine shares similarities with Chinese and Western herbal medicine as well as Ayurvedic medicine from India. In fact, up to 90 per cent of medicinal plants endemic to the Indo-Malaysian region are used as treatments for the same complaints. 

Australia has an interesting herbal medicine history, beginning with Aboriginal use and ending where we are today, a blend of European influences with only a handful of native plants in wide use. The dry, spiky flora of our native scrub must have seemed alien to the first colonisers, accustomed to soft, perfume-y and lush green herbs and plants cultivated in manicured gardens. Wanting to feel 'at home' in their new surrounds, the settlers brought over familiar medicinal and culinary plants. Whatever bush varieties were later 'discovered' were labelled in reference to what was known back home. Names such as 'currant' or 'fig' were given to plants very little like their European namesakes and deserving of classification in their own right. The truth is that many native fruits are less sweet and distinctly more tart, crisp and cooling than European fruits. Upon biting into a 'plum' people are understandably disappointed when met with a sour, limey and crisp fleshed fruit. Left in a class of their own, however, these plants are palatable and well suited to the dry, hot climate. 

Until quite recently, herbs and plants were the only source of medicine available and there’s an increasing awareness of how valuable it is to know even the most basic botanical preparations; oats for a clear complexion, chamomile to calm the mind. Herbal medicine, especially if you grow or forage your own is cheaper than conventional treatment, it’s kinder to the body and mind and encourages self- sufficiency. Although it would literally take a lifetime to learn the thousands of bush medicine plants, it’s worth knowing a few. If not to offer you some refreshment or healing on your next bush walk, but just to make you feel more connected to this land. 

Native Raspberry Rubus Parvifolius

The native raspberry is a native of Eastern parts of Asia and Australia and has been used as an effective herbal medicine in China as well as at home. A rambling shrub with prickly stems, it bears bright red fruits resembling European raspberry varieties. Juicy bright red 'berries' form clusters which are gathered and eaten raw. Their sweetness and high vitamin content make them favourable treats on hunting and gathering expeditions. 

Medicinal Uses

The root, leaves and fruits are all used in herbal medicine. The fruits are high in antioxidants and Vitamin C. A decoction of young leaves is drunk by patients suffering from 'bad belly', alleviating stomach upsets, nausea and vomiting. The roots and leaves display astringent properties which help tone and strengthen the stomach and a decoction is drunk for the treatment of acne and to stimulate blood circulation. 

Native Currant Leptomeria Acida  “Acid Drops” 

I’m not sure why our native currant isn’t known more widely because it’s packed full of vitamin C and it tastes like acid drops (or sour warheads). Found along sandy, coastal regions and as far west as the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, these little treats of sour goodness provide a dose of refreshment on hot summer days when they are in full bloom. 

Medicinal Uses

A known anti-scorbutic (a preventative of Vitamin C deficiencies), this plant is most commonly eaten as a refreshing fruit and was used to make jellies and jams by settlers. Put a few of these into your water on your next bush walk for a bit of tang and nourishment. 

Native Fig Ficus Racemosa "Cluster Fig" 

There are several different types of native figs, however the Ficus Racemosa or cluster fig is one of which has several medicinal applications. It’s fruit forms heavy clusters that tumble down the length of the branches of the tree. These aren’t as palatable as other fig varieties, but have a high water content and traces of protein and fat. 

Medicinal Uses

The inner bark of the tree is scraped and soaked in water for several hours then used as a bath to cure digestive issues. The cluster fig has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine in which all parts of the plant including the latex produced in the leaves are used in treating a wide variety of disorders. It displays some serious healing power, with various preparations of the plant used to treat liver and urinary disease, inflammatory conditions and symptoms related to diabetes. 

Dessert Grass Triodia Pungens “Spinifex” 

Like with the fig, there are many different types of grasses which fall under the common name of spinifex. Spinifex can be found in the dessert and coastal regions of Australia, where it grows in mounds that help prevent soil erosion, provide habitat for animals and nourishment by way of young shoots and seeds. The plant also produces a resin widely used as a sustainable sealant and adhesive. 

Medicinal Uses

A decoction made from boiling the leaves of spinifex is applied as a wash to soothe eyes and skin irritated by dust and heat. Triodia Pungens in particular plays an important role in post-natal care for mothers. The whole plant is placed over a pit of hot coals and the mother sits within the purifying smoke to aid recovery from childbirth and stimulate breast milk production. 

All illustrations by Angus Fisher Art