6 Mar 2023
TREETMENT: 5 CULTURALLY-SIGNIFICANT TREES USED IN ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER MEDICINE
For centuries, trees have been central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing. Here are five culturally-significant native Australian trees crucial to traditional medicine practice due to their medicinal properties.
1. Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Perhaps the most well known tree used medicinally by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is the one the Bundjalung Peoples in Northern NSW refer to as ‘kallara’, otherwise known as Melaleuca alternifolia – commonly known as tea tree.
Tea trees grow most commonly in New South Wales and Queensland. In the bush, tea trees like to grow near streams and in wet environments like swamps. The Bundjalung People traditionally would heat tea tree leaves and breathe in the vapours. They would do this to treat coughs and colds. They would also create a warm, wet mass from the leaves to treat wounds and infections topically. Western scientific studies have found that the antiseptic activity of tea tree oil appears to be due, in part, to.
The swampy areas where the tea trees grow are traditionally called “healing lakes”. Kallara or tea tree leaves would fall into the water and slowly ‘stew’, making the water change to a tea color while retaining all of the essential oil’s properties. The anti-bacterial qualities and medicinal properties of the plants were so culturally important that on Bundjalung Country, the tea tree lakes were often sacred womens' places that were even used for child birthing ceremonies.
2. Balga aka grass tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii)
While not strictly a ‘tree’ according to scientific classification systems, the grass tree (xanthorrhoea preissii), known as balga, is a veritable treasure chest that iconically defines natural landscapes throughout Australia.
It has been a provider of medicine, tool, food and so much more to Aboriginal people for thousands of years. The name 'balga' is derived from the Noongar language. The balga or grass tree is also known as
- bukkup on Gunditjmara Country
- kawee on Tjapwurong Country
- baggup on Wurundjeri Country
- yacca by the Nunga Peoples in South Australia
The balga has many interesting medicinal applications. Inside of the top of the tree, there is a pulp traditionally eaten to ail stomach upsets.
A broken balga or grass tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) pseudo-trunk. This is a good illustration of the structure of the "trunk", being composed of a ring of accumulated leaf bases which provide structural support but no nutrient transport. Nutrient transport is achieved via aerial roots which run down the hollow centre. (WikiCommons)
Additionally, the balga contains a gum that when chewed, can relieve both diarrhoea and constipation. The balga or grass tree also excretes a resin as well. First Peoples would burn the resin, then breathe in the smoke to help relieve sinusitis.
3. Soap Tree (Alphitonia excelsa)
The tree’s common name is a nod to just one of its many uses - Indigenous people would crush the leaves when bathing in water to create a soapy lather. The lather is caused by a naturally occurring compound called saponin.
But that is just the beginning of the soap tree’s medicinal value to First Peoples. The bark and root of the soap tree would be shredded and steeped to create a curative infusion. The infusion could be rubbed on the body to soothe muscle aches, or even gargled to treat toothache. Soap tree leaves, berries and bark has been also traditionally used to treat:
- colds and fever
- stomach upset
- snake bite
- eye sores
- wounds and cuts
Scientific studies has shown that soap leaf solvent extractionsIf the healing properties of the soap tree weren’t evidence enough of its staggering usefulness, the soap tree was also traditionally used in centuries old sustainable fishing practices! As saponin breaks down the surface tension of water, First Peoples would put crushed soap tree leaves and berries in fishing spots, then watch and wait for naturally stunned fish to float to the surface! After retrieving enough fish to eat, the remaining fish would eventually come to (as the ‘stun’ effect was only temporary) and be on their merry way.
As with the tea tree, the benefits and uses of eucalyptus are well-known and widespread. From the Snow Gum-dotted alpine regions of Taungurung Country, to the West Coast home of the iconic tooart (tuart) tree (Eucalyptus gomphocephala), the valuable properties of this tree have been understood and consumed for centuries.
Undeniably famous for being nature’s antiseptic, First Peoples also used several species of Eucalyptus as tonics for countless ailments including gastro-intestinal problems. The gum would be combined with water then taken to treat symptoms like diarrhoea.
Eucalyptus leaves are deeply connected to Indigenous spiritual health practices, as one of the leaves often being burned in smoking ceremonies. Smoking ceremonies are a highly culturally-significant ritual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have performed for thousands of years. The smoke is waved onto people present at the ceremony to cleanse them, as well as the location itself of bad spirits and to encourage good health. These ceremonies connection to culture, Country and the health benefits of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medicine. Sadly, the impressive functionality of eucalyptus trees isn’t always’ to nature’s benefit. In a cruel twist of fate, eucalyptus trees have the natural ability to indicate the presence of gold underneath them. X-ray elemental imaging has revealed deposits of gold and other metals in the structure of Eucalyptus leaves from the Kalgoorlie region of Western Australia “that would have been untraceable using other methods”. There are a number of Aboriginal names for eucalyptus trees, including:
- Jarrah (Noongar and common name for Eucalyptus marginata)
- Moich (Noongar name for Eucalyptus rudis aka flooded gum)
- Wandoo (Noongar and common name for Eucalyptus wandoo)
- Aper (Alyawarr, Anmatyerr and Eastern Arrernte name for Eucalyptus camaldulensis aka river red gum)
- Dwutta (Noongar name for Eucalyptus todtiana aka prickly bark tree)
- Muggago (Dharawal name for Eucalyptus crebra, commonly known as the narrow-leaved ironbark)
- Mottlecah (Noongar name for Eucalyptus macrocarpa)
5. Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon)
Like a few of the other trees mentioned here, blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) can also be used to treat headaches, cold and fever.
Like a few of the other trees mentioned here, blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) can also be used to treat headaches, cold and fever. But did you know that Indigenous peoples also traditionally used a heated infusion of roasted blackwood bark to treat rheumatic joints? The presence of tannin in the bark gives it several other important medicinal properties. Blackwood is known by many Indigenous names including:
- Moeang (Woi wurrung)
- Yanun or Yoman (Gunaikurnai)
- Moyan (Taungurung)
These are just a few of the many tree species with immeasurable cultural and medicinal value to First Peoples. For this and so many reasons, we all need trees. Towards Two Billion Trees is WWF-Australia’s ambitious plan to save and grow two billion trees by 2030. Find out more.