Last Updated Apr 18, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider
Before the advent of modern medicine, cultures everywhere used medicinal plants to heal sickness, wounds and other ailments. In Australia, Aboriginal healers were held in high regard and used hundreds of Australian native plants for their healing powers. While some of their ancient knowledge has been lost, many of these plants are still known and widely available. They can be a beautiful addition to a native garden.
(Melaleuca or tea tree)
As is true in indigenous cultures throughout the world, Aboriginal healers saw illness as caused by three sources:
Natural causes included injuries or illness due to imbibing a harmful substance. Human causes included behaviour that harmed the body. Supernatural causes included sorcery, breaches of religious practices, breaking the rules of social conduct, the intrusion of spirits or "loss of soul." Aboriginal healers had cures for all three types of injury or disease. They used plants for natural and human causes and had elaborate rituals to break a sorcery spell or drive away a bad spirit.
Chemists have discovered that many Aboriginal healing plants contain ingredients that are known to Western medicine. They include anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Aboriginal healers did not have access to Western teachings. They learned healing through elders or sometimes in dreams.
Today, you can buy some Aboriginal medicines over the counter at health food shops and
pharmacies. Two of the most common ones are Tea tree oil and Eucalyptus oil:
Tea tree oil was used by the Bundjalung people on the coast of New South Wales. They crushed tea tree (or paper bark) leaves and applied it to wounds. They also brewed a tea to heal throat ailments. In the 1920s, experiments proved tea tree oil was more potent than the antiseptics available at the time.
Aboriginal healers throughout Australia used eucalyptus oil for a variety of ailments. It was rubbed on the skin for bodily aches and pains and used internally for fevers and chills. Today, eucalyptus oil is a common ingredient in over the counter mouthwashes, throat lozenges and cough suppressants.
(Eucalyptus leaves and tincture)
Other Aboriginal medicines are less well known, but have been proven to have health benefits:
Kakadu plum (or Billy goat plum) has the highest known concentration of Vitamin C
Aboriginals used Desert mushrooms as a tonic for a sore mouth or lips. Desert mushrooms have been shown to be useful for babies with oral thrush
Northern Territory Aboriginals used the Emu bush to heal sores and cuts. It has been discovered that the Emu bush has antibiotics as strong as Western antibiotics
Kangaroo apple was used to treat swollen joints. It contains a steroid that helps stimulate cortisone
These are just some of the Aboriginal healing medicines that have been studied and found to be effective because of their natural ingredients.
You may or may not want to use healing plants, but indigenous plants are beautiful and can make a great addition to any garden.
Over 200 varieties of melaleuca (tea tree) grow in Australia. Melaleuca trees grow in swampy areas of Western Australia, but they are a hardy tree that can even be grown in New South Wales. Sometimes called "paper bark" because of their peeling bark, melaleucas produce beautiful flowers. Even when flowers are not in bloom, they are a beautiful tree.
Eucalyptus trees grow all over Australia. You may have to be patient with a eucalyptus tree. They take about 10 years to grow to maturity. You should plant a eucalyptus tree well away from your house. They are tall trees and branches may fall on the house. Some have extensive root systems that can damage your house foundations. Eucalyptus trees in your garden can provide you with shade and may be perfect for an outdoor sitting area.
Of course, many other healing plants are bushes and succulents. These can go anywhere in your garden. To be sure they thrive in your area, ask a garden maintenance specialist which plants thrive best in your area. They will also know if a particular plant grows best in full sun, partial shade or shade.
If you want a climbing vine in your garden, Smilax (a native Sarsaparilla) is a good choice. Smilax has beautiful leaves and produces small berries. The berries are a brilliant green and turn black when ripe. The fruit is a type of bush tucker and the leaves are considered medicinal when brewed as a tea. Smilax is a thorny bush, so should be used in an area where children won't be endangered by the thorns.
Snakevine is another climbing plant. It has a milky sap that is used to treat headaches and other ailments. Aboriginal healers say it is a "cooling" plant. In the Aboriginal healing tradition, cooling plants are often medicinal plants.
The Emu bush (Eremophila) has beautiful pink, reddish or purple flowers. Over 200 species of Eremophila have been discovered. It grows best in semi-arid conditions, but can thrive in most environments in well-drained soil. It likes full sun and is a spreading plant. You can buy a single Emu bush and propagate more by using cuttings from your original plant.
Kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare or Solanum laciniatum) is another medicinal bush. It grows to a height of a metre to up to three metres and has brilliant purple blossoms. The fruit of the Kangaroo apple is toxic until it is ripe.
Goat's foot (Ipomea pes-caprae) is a medicinal plant and a form of bush tucker. However, it can be poisonous if not prepared correctly. It can also be used as a poultice to treat stings and bites. While you may not want to use it as a food source, Goat's foot has beautiful purple flowers. Goat's foot is a vine that can grow on your garden floor or, with support, can climb a fence.
Don't overlook Australian succulents. Succulents can be a stunning addition to your garden. They are easy to grow and require little water. Many succulents were a food source for Aboriginals and others were medicinal. Succulents come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours.
You can mix succulents with your other garden plants or create a succulent garden. They can also be planted in pots or you can even add succulents to a vertical garden.
These are just some ideas to help you think about ways you can build a native garden with healing powers. The beauty of using native plants is that they are indigenous to Australia. They keep you in touch with your Australian roots and are easy to maintain if you choose the right plants and plant them in the right location. If you need help with your selection, a garden designer might be able to help you choose medicinal native plants.