Plants 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