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Dreaming and the DreamtimePlants and Herbs used in Traditional Aboriginal Medicine


Medicine men sometimes employed plants and herbs in their rites, but they did not usually practice secular medicine. The healing of trivial non-spiritual complaints, using herbs and other remedies, was practiced by all Aborigines, although older women were usually the experts. To ensure success, plants and magic were often prescribed side-by-side.

Plants were prepared as remedies in a number of ways. Leafy branches were often placed over a fire while the patient squatted on top and inhaled the steam. Sprigs of aromatic leaves might be crushed and inhaled, inserted into the nasal septum, or prepared into a pillow on which the patient slept. To make an infusion, leaves or bark were crushed and soaked in water (sometimes for a very long time), which was then drunk, or washed over the body. Ointment was prepared by mixing crushed leaves with animal fat. Other external treatment included rubbing down the patient with crushed seed paste, fruit pulp or animal oil, or dripping milky say or a gummy solution over them. Most plant medicines were externally applied.

Medicine plants were always common plants. Aborigines carried no medicine kits and had to have remedies that grew at hand when needed. If a preferred herb was unavailable, there was usually a local substitute.

In the deserts, the strongest medicines are made from very widely occurring plants. Fuchsia bushes (Eremophila) and bloodwood trees (Eucalyptus terminalis) grow everywhere and were used fresh,or as ground leaves.

Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) sprout on every ridge top and jirrpirinypa (Stemodia viscosa) around every water hole.

Emu bush (Eremophila)
Weeping Emu Bush (Eremophila longifolia)

In the Top End, many different kinds of large leaves are considered useful for staunching wounds, presumably because cases of profuse bleeding allow little time for searching.

Except for ointments, which were made by mixing crushed leaves with animal fat, medicines were rarely mixed. Very occasionally two plants were used together.

Aboriginal medicines were never quantified - there were no measured doses or specific times of treatment. Since most remedies were applied externally, there was little risk of overdosing.

Some medicines were known to vary in strength with the seasons. Aromatic lemon grasses had to be picked while green, and toothed ragwort leaves (Pterocaulon serrulatum) were strongest after rain. A wet season growth of green plum leaves (Buchanania obovata), used as a toothache remedy, was considered much stronger than that available during dry.

One area of Aboriginal medicine with no obvious Western parallel was baby medicine. Newborn babies were steamed or rubbed with oils to renter them stronger. Often, mothers were also steamed.

A notable feature of Aboriginal medicine was the importance placed upon oil as a healing agent, an importance that passed to white colonists, and is reflected today in the continuing popularity of goanna oil.

Earth, mud, sand, and termite dirt were also taken as medicines. In the Channel Country, healing mud for packing wounds was taken from the cold beds of water holes. In many parts of Australia, wounds were dressed with dirt or ash. Arnhem Land Aborigines still eat small balls of white clay and pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhea and stomach upsets. Clay and termite earth probably share the properties of kaolin, which is the white clay used in western medicine. They may also provide essential nutrients: some termite mounts are extraordinarily rich in iron -as high as two percent. But whether this can be absorbed through the stomach has yet to be determined.

The following table presents a sample of remedies, and only the more important ailments:

HEADACHE Red ash (Alphitonia excelsa) 
Headache vine (Clematis microphylla) 
Rock fuchsia bush (Eremophila) 
Liniment tree (Melaleuca symphyocarpa) 
Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) 
Snakevine (Tinospora smilacina)
Bathe with crushed leaves in water 
Crushed leaves inhaled 
Leaf decoction drunk 
Crushed leaves rubbed on head 
Fruit pulp rubbed on head 
Mashed stems wound around head
COUGHS, COLDS Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) 
Fuchsia bushes (Eremophila) 
Tea trees (Melaleuca) 
River mint (Mentha australis) 
Great morinda (Morinda citrifolia)
Decoction drunk or applied as wash 
Decoction drunk 
Crushed leaves inhaled 
Decoction drunk 
Ripe fruit eaten
FEVERS Turpentine bush (Beyeria lechenaultii) 
Kapok tree (Cochlospermum fraseri) 
Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) 
Red river gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) 
Tea tree (Melaleuca viridiflora)
Leaf decoction taken 
Bark and flower decoction drunk 
External wash of boiled leaves 
Steamed leaves inhaled 
Bath of crushed leaves in water
DIARRHOEA Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) 
Eucalypt bark (Eucalypt) 
Cluster fig (Ficus racemosa) 
Sacred basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) 
Native raspberries (Rubus)
Decoction drunk 
Infusion drunk 
Bark infusion drunk 
Root infusion drunk 
Leaf infusion drunk 
Decoction drunk
WOUNDS Billygoat weed (Ageratum) 
Tree orchid (Dendrobium affine) 
Spike rush (Eleocharis dulcis) 

Paperbark tea trees (Melaleuca) 

Cocky apple (Planchonia careya)
Crushed plant applied 
Bulb sap dabbed on cuts 
Decaying plant bound to wounds 
Bark wrapped as a bandage 
Bark infusion poured into wounds
ACHES AND PAINS Northern black wattle (Acacia auriculiformis) 
Beach bean (Canavilia rosea) 
Rock fuchsia bush (Eremophila freelingii) 
Beaty leaf (Calophyllum inophullum)
Root decoction applied 
Mashed root infusion rubbed on 
Wash with leaf decoction 
Rub with crushed nut and ochre
STINGS Nipan (Capparis lasiantha) 
Native hop (Dodonaea viscosa) 
Beach convolvulus (Ipomoea pes-caprae) 
Snakevine (Tinospora smilacina) 
Peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifida)
Whole plant infusion applied 
Chewed leaves bound to sting 
Heated leaf applied 
Root poultice applied 
Heated leaves pressed on sting
RHEUMATISM Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) 
Konkerberry (Carissa Ianceolata) 
Beach bean (Canacalia rosea) 
Tick-weed (Cleome viscosa) 
Stinging tree (Dendrocnide moroides) 
Nettle (Urtica)
Bathe in bark infusion 
Oily sap rubbed as liniment 
Mashed root infusion rubbed in 
Leaves applied 
Boiled leaves and bark rubbed in 
Patient beaten with leaves
SORE EYES Ironwood (Acacia melanoxylon) 
Green plum (Buchanania obovata) 
Regal birdflower (Crotalaria cunninghamii) 
Emu apple (Owenia acidula) 
Fan flower (Scaevola sericea) 
Root decoction administered 
Infusion of inner bark applied 
Sap or leaf decoction given 
Wood decoction applied 
Fruit juice applied
SORE EARS River mangrove (Aegiceras corniculatum) 
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon) 
Native hop (Dodonaea viscosa) 
Lady apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)
Leaf decoction applied 
Root decoction poured into ears 
Boiled root juice applied  
Fruit pulp applied
TOOTHACHE Green plum (Buchanania obovata) 
Denhamia (Denhamia obscura) 
Supplejack (Flagellaria indica) 
Pemphis (Pemphis acidula) 
Quinine berry (Petalostigma pubescens)
Tooth plugged with shredded wood 
Tooth plugged with inner bark 
Benumbing stem chewed 
Burning twig applied 
Fruits held in mouth

Back to Page 1 of Bush Medicine

Based on text originally prepared for Reen at Big River Internet - Edited version reproduced with permission.


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