In the Townsville area, there are a considerable number of plants native to the area as well as introduced weeds, which may be used for either culinary or medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, if you are trying to survive on these alone, then you would have difficulty getting sufficient quantities and variety at anyone time. However, most could be cultivated. The plants included here are chiefly those that occur in a plant family that has many useful plants, or ones that will be frequently encountered, usually because they occur in a particular habitat. If you are trying to live off the land, then it is important to be able to recognise the plants. Incidentally, many plants that have medicinal properties are also poisonous: it usually depends on the amount consumed combined with various other factors. Hence always treat unknown fruits with caution and trial them slowly. It is not important to know what is useful for shelter unless the timber or branches used drip nasty stuff or provide homes for scorpions and other nasties.
Some important families Oil-bearing families. The two most important ones in the Australian bush are the Myrtaceae, Eucalypt or Lilly-Pilly Family and the Rutaceae or Citrus family.
How to recognise MYRTACEAE: Crush the leaves and smell and/or look for the oil glands. If flowering, there will be numerous stamens. Flowers tend to be grouped in multiples of 3. The petals or their remains are on top of the ovary.
Plants most commonly used in this area belong to the genera: Eucalyptus, Melaleuca and Syzygium/Acmena/Eugenia and the introduced Psidium or Guava. Probably the oil from most members of this family will have an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial action to some extent. Only a few have been tested, the latest is Backhousia and a Syzygium in New Guinea.
Eucalyptus: Seeds, if large enough, can be eaten, highly nutritious; nectar can be used to make a drink and most of our commercial honey comes from different species of eucalypts. Lerps, a sap-sucking insect on the leaves, were highly prized by Aboriginal peoples. They could be washed off and processed to form dampers etc. The oil, when distilled, has many uses.
Melaleuca or Paperbark. Best known for the tea-tree oils which can be used as a liniment for aches and pains, partly because of the cineoles, as inhalations and infusions for cold. Don't drink the oil! Leaves can be chewed or sucked. These oils are now recognised as powerful anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agents, even against some antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Additionally, leaves can be used to flavour shellfish etc. The flowers can be soaked in water to make a drink. Unlike Eucalypt honey, Melaleuca honey is usually dark and quite strong tasting. The bark has many uses including being made into pads which can be wrapped tightly over wounds to stop bleeding.
Syzygium or Lilly-pillies, water cherry etc. The fleshy fruits can be eaten raw although most are a bit bland, and often containing other proteins!. Often made into jams and jellies. An infusion made from the leaves and bark of Guava is reputed to be used to cure indigestion. The fruit is high in Vitamin C and Iron. It is also a mild laxative.
How to recognise RUTACEAE: Crush the leaves or look for oil glands and smell; should get a lemon-citrus smell. Flowers have either 4 or 5 petals and the stamens are usually double that number. The useful fruit are fleshy, usually small and shaped like a small citrus fruit. A common genus of the rainforest is Acronychia or Lemon aspen - the fruits are rather acid to eat raw but can be made into jams and jellies. Leaves of Euodia/Melicope are used in perfumes.
LEGUMES. The wattles that occur locally can all be used in various ways. The abundant pollen can be stripped off and added to batter, add some sugar and whipped cream and you have 'wattle fritters'. The seeds of many can be ground and used as flour. The gum can usually be eaten and makes a soothing syrup. An infusion from the roots of some has been used to treat coughs. A by-product is the witchetty grubs which are found in the roots of many. Acacia holosericea, a common tropical wattle, has saponins in it which can be used as a fish-poison, or crush the leaves and use as soap. The seeds in Cassia pods often contain substances which are laxatives.
PROTEACEAE or Grevillea family. Many of the flowers in this family have copious nectar which can be drained off to make a syrup or used in a drink, or you may wish to lick it off. Protea honey is popular in South Africa. The skin may be peeled off the fleshy fruits of the Geebung, or Persoonia and the sweet pulp eaten. Hakea seeds may be eaten raw.
RUBIACEAE or Gardenia family. Distinguished by the simple opposite leaves, which have smooth margins; as well, there are a pair of stipules running between the base of the leaves. The fruits of most species can be eaten when ripe, although they are often very small. Some common general are Randia, Canthiurn, Ixora and Kailarsenia, the latter is sometimes known as Gardenia. Nauclea orientalis or Leichhardt Tree, common along creeks and swamps. The large fruit is edible when ripe, even if slightly bitter. The pulp and seeds can be eaten but the skin should be discarded. High in Vit. C. Saponins are present in the bark, roots and leaves.
Morinda citrifolia, Great Morinda, Noni. This large shrub with opposite shiny leaves is often found in coastal dune shrubs and is widespread through the Asian region. The large smelly fruits, high in Vit C, can be eaten when fully ripe, best to pick when they have just fallen off the tree. Unripe fruits can be used in curries and stews. Young leaves are edible either raw or cooked, but may have a slightly anaesthetic effect on the throat. The pulp of crushed green fruits can be applied to sores, has been shown to have an anti-bacterial action.
MORACEAE or Fig family. For most species, the young shoots can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The fruits can be eaten when ripe, those with hairy fruits are generally not very tasty. Fruits of Ficus racemosa, a cluster fig, make good jellies. Ficus virens fruit are tasty, as are the sandpaper fig fruits but they are rather small. The milky sap can be used to heal wounds. Extracts from the bark of Ficus septica have been made into a drink to cure diarrhoea.
ASTERACEAE or Daisy family. This is a family where there are a lot that produce irritants and even toxins, but there are also ones that are edible, such as the Jerusalem artichoke and lettuce. Two common weeds that when cooked may be used as green vegetables are Emilia sonchifolia, Purple Emily, and Sonchus oleracea or Milk Thistle. The leaves can be eaten raw but tend to be a bit bitter. The cooking water of Emilia should not be wasted as it can be used to bathe patients suffering with the flu or a headache!.
SOME SPECIAL HABITATS
Beach and Mangrove Areas. Hibiscus tiliaceus, Beach Hibiscus or Cotton Tree. The shoots and buds of this tree can be eaten raw or boiled and eaten as a vegetable and later the seeds can be eaten. An infusion made from the leaves and bark has been used for stomach pains and diarrhoea. The large soft leaves can be heated and then pressed over a wound so as to help stop bleeding and the inner bark can be used for strapping up wounds. The wood of this tree will burn even when wet so it is a useful source of fuel particularly in wet weather.
Terminalia, Sea Almond, Indian Almond are the common names for T. catappa. Billy Goat Plum is the common name of another. The fruit of most species are edible and have a high Vit. C content. The kernel of the Indian Almond is particularly tasty, so much so that it is hard to find an intact fruit in popular picnic areas. Seeds do not keep well because of the high oil content. Gum can be extracted from the bark of some species and eaten.
Mangroves. Most mangroves produce fruits, which germinate on the tree. These can be collected and eaten after suitable treatment to remove the tannins. A common and widespread mangrove is Avicennia marina, the Grey Mangrove. It has greyish lanceolate leaves and surrounding the base of the tree are numerous thin pencil-like pneumatophores poking up from the soil. The fruits can be eaten after processing to remove the tannins. Either soak in strong brine for several weeks, changing the solution several times, skin and bake, or after removing the skin, boil for about an hour, again changing the water several times. Then pound the flesh, which can then be made into a dip with yoghurt and lemon etc. or made into a 'cake'. Rhizophora and Bruguiera propagules should be baked, skinned then pounded and washed well to remove the tannins. The starchy mush remaining should be squeezed dry prior to eating.
Samphires. These are small, frequently succulent, plants that are found on or near saltpans or saline areas. Most of these can be eaten and served as vegetables. It is usual to cook them and discard the cooking water, so as to remove some of the salt. Young shoots can be boiled for a few minutes and then turned into pickles. Suaeda 'Seablite', shoots can be pickled by placing in vinegar and leaving for a few weeks. The Ruby Saltbush, commonly found in more western areas has delicious small orange to red, flattish fruits. Leaves can also be used as a vegetable.
A common succulent plant found in a variety of areas is the yellow-flowered Pigweed or Purslane, Portulaca oleracea. The leaves of this plant may be eaten but are best cooked. The little black seeds, which can be collected by drying the capsules on paper were highly regarded in the days past. Supposed to have a flavour similar to linseed.
Dunes vines. Canavalia rosea, Beach or Fire Bean, This vine with purple-pink pea-shaped flowers produces pods and seeds, which are edible after cooking. A root infusion is supposed to cure colds.
Ipomoea pescaprae, the Beach or Goat's Foot Convolvulus, has large purple flowers. The tubers of this plant are edible after boiling or roasting. If cut into sections, it will shorten the cooking time. It is a relative of the sweet potato, as is Ipomoea aquatica, Water Spinach. The young tips of this plant which is usually found growing in swamps and streams is cooked as a green vegetable in many parts of Asia.
Vigna marina, the roots of this vine with yellow pea-shaped flowers can be eaten after roasting, it is supposed to have a parsnip-like flavour. If eaten raw, it was supposed to cure diarrhoea.
Freshwater areas: The Aborigines found numerous edible plants in areas such as the Townsville Town Common.
Sedges. Probably the best known is Bulkuru, Tall spike Rush, or when cultivated, it is known as the Water Chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), beloved of magpie geese. The young white tubers may be eaten raw when old or preferably baked or cooked when young. The tubers should be dug up when the stems start to turn brown.
Cyperus spp. Many roots and tubers can be eaten raw or cooked. Some need quite a lot of treatment. Nut grass 'nuts' can't be eaten.
Typha angustifolia, Bulrush or Cat's Tail. This is a very versatile plant, the soft white portions of the new shoots may be boiled or eaten as a vegetable, likewise the flower stalk. Roots may be roasted and pounded to form flour. Pollen may be used as a flavouring in cakes. Fluff from old flowers was used by Aborigines for dressing wounds. Even the sap has uses: it is thought to offer protection against leeches. Traditional uses vary according to area and country.
Nymphaea gigantea, Waterlily. Much prized by Aborigines, the roots can be roasted, the flower stalk may be peeled and eaten like celery or used as straws to filter muddy water - start at the leaf end. Seeds may be squeezed out and eaten, but the taste is supposed to improve by frying briefly. Aborigines used the mucilage as protection against leeches.
Nelumbo nucifera, Lotus. Introduced to this country, but the seeds are highly valued in Asian cuisine. Eichhornia crassipes, Water Hyacinth. EAT THE PEST. Although supposedly rather tasteless, young leaves, petioles and flower stalks can all be eaten after boiling. Do not eat raw.
Woodland areas: in this category I have just included a few selected plants, which are widespread.
Grewia spp. Many species occur in Australia and Africa and in between. Several common names are Dysentery Plant, Emu-berries, and Dog's Balls. The bushes bear attractive small yellow flowers followed by the fruits, which although variable in flavour are popular in a number of cultures. Fruits may be eaten raw or soaked to make a drink. The crushed leaves are used to relieve toothache, cure dysentery and diarrhoea, probably due to the high mucilage levels.
Zizyphus mauritiana. Chinee Apple and its relatives are useful as food in many places, dried and eaten as the chinese date, turned into jam etc. Fruits are variable in quality but may be eaten raw or cooked.
Planchonia careya, Cocky Apple or native Pear. The fleshy pulp of the ripe fruit can be eaten raw or roasted; it is suggested that the pulp and seeds be sucked out leaving the skin and fibres. Saponins are present in the roots and bark.
Pandanus spp. Screw Pine. The soft white leaf bases of most species can be eaten fresh or cooked and eaten a bit like eating artichokes. Likewise the base of the fruiting segments after they have been roasted. Taste is variable from a nutty flavour to unmentionable. The raw seeds may be eaten as can the 'palm' hearts, but this will kill the plant.
Alphitonia excelsa, Red Ash or Sarsparilla. In Aboriginal lore there are many medicinal uses. An infusion of leaves in warm water may be used to bathe the eyes, to cure a headache and young leaves may be chewed to ease an upset stomach. An infusion made from the roots and bark may be rubbed on as a liniment to relieve the aches and pains of life.
Pleiogynium timorense, Burdekin Plum. The fleshy portion of the fruits is edible when completely ripe although rather acid. Some suggest that they are best if kept or even buried for several days. Can be used to make a nice jelly.
Sterculia quadrifida, Peanut Tree. Seeds are eaten raw after removing the black skin. Care should be taken to avoid the hairs. Leaves have been used to wrap meat and fish up for cooking over coals, supposed to add flavour to the contents. Some herbs and vines of the woodlands and areas adjacent to rainforest.
Amaranthus viridus and Chenopodium album. The latter is also known as Fat Hen. Plants common to many areas of the world, frequently as weeds. Leaves of all species of Amaranth can be cooked and used like spinach. Some are grown as crops. Seeds are highly nutritious and can be ground up to form a flour rich in lysine, protein, iron, calcium and several important vitamins. Fat Hen is apparently not as good as Amaranth, but it has been used in Europe for centuries. The discarded cooking liquid reputedly can be used against intestinal worms.
Ocimum. Wild Basil, has medicinal rather than culinary uses but leaves may be used as a condiment. Has been used to treat respiratory ailments and headaches.
Plectranthus, Native Coleus. A variety of species often growing in wetter areas and among rocks as on Hervey's Range road. Leaves may be crushed in water and drunk for internal complaints. Some species have been recently shown to have anti-bacterial properties.
Alpinia spp. Native Ginger. A number of species can be found associated with the rainforest margins. The young rhizomes particularly may be used as a flavouring, although rather fibrous when old, they may be cooked as a vegetable. The aromatic pulp surrounding the seeds may be eaten and then the seeds discarded.
Passiflora foetida, Wild or Stinking Passionfruit. The pulp and seeds of ripe fruit may be eaten but the skin should be discarded. Quite a pleasant taste.
Raspberries. Lovely to eat although not as flavoursome as the cultivated ones. In the tropical rainforests, they should be treated with caution because of the activity of the white-tailed rats! The leaves are rich in tannins and can be used medicinally to treat diarrhoea and other ailments as they bind with various proteins to form insoluble compounds. Too much tannin is not good as they also bind with the good proteins.
Plantago major, Plaintain. Found in cooler moister areas such as around Paluma and the Atherton Tablelands. Seeds are high in fibre and the mucilage helps to bulk this out so that it is used as a laxative. This plant is used in different ways depending on the country and region. Leaves may be bruised or crushed and used to relieve the pain from bites and stings. A tea made from the leaves can be used as a diuretic. Clinical studies have recently shown it to have an anti-bacterial action.
Bracken Fern, this pest, which helps to support the tick population is used in a number of ways. In days past the rhizome was eaten after roasting but it is now known to have a carcinogen in it. Juice obtained from young stems has been used to relieve the pain of insect bites.
Some grasses. Giant Spear Grass, Heteropogon triticeus, is regarded as bush sugar cane in the Northern Territory and the stems can be chewed and sucked to extract the sweet liquid inside.
Cymbopogon bombycinus, Silky Oilgrass. Crushed leaves can be used to impart a lemon flavour to drinks. It can be used as a substitute for lemon grass. The seeds of a lot of grasses can be eaten or processed to form flour. These are but a few of the plants, which occur in the Townsville area that can be used for food or medicine. Most of these species occur in other areas of Australia as well as in a number of other countries.
If you are interested in reading further then a couple of authors that should be consulted are A.B. and J.W Cribb, Tim Low, the Ethnobotanical series published by the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory and Lassak and McCarthy, Australian Medicinal Plants.
Betsy has a number of publications chiefly in the field of systematics and include popular books such as Plants of Magnetic Island and Poisonous Plants of Northern Australian Gardens.
DATE: May 2000
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