Australia means different things to each of us, but this Australia Day we take a look at three iconic native plants that have shaped the lives of Australians.
Grass Trees (Xanthorrhoea)
Grass Trees have a uniquely Australian look and grace many modern native gardens, but they were also one of the most valued and useful plants in traditional Aboriginal culture.
Unripe seeds could be eaten whole, and tuberous roots roasted and eaten. Mature leaves were woven into baskets. The flower spikes though, were invaluable. The spikes were used as throwing or fishing spears, burnt with the smoke used as a remedy for colds or soaked in water to release their nectar, making a sweet drink.
As the flowers on the spike tend to open on the warmer, sunny side (usually the north) first, the flower spikes can also be used as a sort of bush compass. Most prized however was the resin produced by flower spikes, which made an invaluable adhesive. It was used in spear making and also to patch up leaky water containers and didgeridoos. This same resin made dried flowers a very effective tool for starting fires.
When British settlers arrived, they were quick to see the value of the resin, and a large export market developed – though unsustainable harvesting practices have meant that harvesting is now strictly controlled in most states.
Lilly Pilly (Syzygium and Acmena species)
Lilly Pilles are one of the most popular plants in modern Australia, thanks to their hardiness and dense, bushy habit that helps them to form a great hedge or screen. Most varieties produce fluffy white or greenish flowers followed by long lasting red or purple berries.
These berries have been a source of food for Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years, but when the early English settlers arrived, they seized on them in a particularly European way. Finding them a great way to ward off scurvy after their months at sea, they feasted on them and found they tasted like cranberries, with a hint of cloves. Before long, Lilly Pilly berries were being treated much like redcurrants and turned into delicious jams and jellies to serve with roast pork or lamb, or smeared over crumpets!
Experiencing a surge in popularity in the 70s, Bottlebrush trees were planted all over Sydney, many by the council on nature strips. They were one of the native plants that helped us expand our definition of a garden beyond the traditional English cottage plants, and appreciate the natural beauty of our landscape. You’ll find them particularly numerous in the suburbs of Sydney that were developing at the time.
It’s for this reason that, for many of us growing up in Sydney in the second half of the 20th century, bottlebrush trees are as much a part of an Australian summer as the smell of a barbecue and the song of cicadas. The fluffy flowers’ ability to attract bees and native birds meant there was always something happening around the tree, and they had a perseverance that could stand up to a host of children descending on them – pulling off the flowers, or climbing up into the thin, high branches until a resounding crack signalled a hasty descent.
Even their name is a reflection of the straight forward, ‘tell-it-how-it-is’ aspect of Aussie culture, named simply for their resemblance to something you’d find under most Australian kitchen sinks. These beauties still make a great specimen tree, despite a waning of their popularity over recent years.