O while away an afternoon in the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide is always pleasurable, whether picnicking, reading or simply gathering one’s thoughts beneath the shade of an obliging tree. But an hour spent in the company of Uncle Wally Kite takes you behind the green curtain to discover what really lurks at the bottom of the garden: larder, apothecary’s chest, hardware store and armoury.
Once a month the dapper Uncle Wally, donning the stockman’s hat of his former trade, leads visitors through the Adelaide gardens, explaining the myriad uses plants have for Aborigines. He begins his tour beneath a venerable 300-year-old river red gum gashed with a long scar where a canoe was extracted. This is my supermarket tree,’’ he smiles.
Aside from the canoe, likely crafted by the local Kaurna (pronounced gaa-nah) people long before European settlement, this wily old tree can provide boomerangs (Uncle Wally points to a bent root stub, perfectly shaped to wield two or three weapons) and, given the large burr near its base, bark for a coolamon, or carrying vessel.
He points to another scar where a shield was taken, then indicates the tree’s other products: honey from the native bee, meat, skin and bones from the possum (four skins make a vest, the bones are used for spear heads) and medicinal eucalyptus leaves.
As we move through the Adelaide gardens — once a camping ground for the Kaurna, today an Eden-like repository for trees and plants from across the globe — it is the Australian flora that comes to life under Uncle Wally’s gentle tutelage. We pause at a wild cherry tree (Myrtaceae Syzygium) to pluck a fruit that looks like a berry but tastes like a tart apple.
The charismatic yakka or grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) is one of Uncle Wally’s favourites. When this plant burns, the skirt is stripped, revealing a blackened stem from which is chiselled a shiny, aromatic resin (Uncle Wally extracts a piece from his pocket) used as a glue, perfume and body paint. The long flower stalk provides a nectar dissolved in water to be tossed back like cordial; the seeds are ground into flour for damper.
The Kaurna men used the stalks as short spears; Uncle Wally has adapted them into fire sticks. A quick demo beneath the burned-out hollow of an ancient river red gum produces a pungent charcoal dabbed on to the skin as an insect repellent.
Even the base of those rather lethal yakka leaves are edible, tasting somewhat like potato.
During the course of our ramble, Uncle Wally conveys a deep respect for every plant we encounter, stressing prudent management. Nothing must be over-harvested (just a few leaves from each grass tree), while the great sheets of bark provided by the stringybark for shelter are collected only after they have fallen.
This incredible, twisted giant of a tree, hidden at the garden’s heart, is women’s business’’, Wally says, for it is they who would have teased the witchetty grubs, which are loaded with vitamins B and C and tastiest in spring, from small holes pocked all over the tree.
Plant knowledge is held by women, explains Uncle Wally, who learned at the knee of his mother and aunts. But because this is a botanic gardens, he is able to explain trees from beyond the lands of his Narungga people (of South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula). The macadamia nut’s hard shell is used as a whistle, he tells me; the foam bark tree is used to poison fish and the seeds of the stately bunya pine taste like custard when ground.
I’ve rarely enjoyed a stroll through any garden as much. Uncle Wally is excellent company and a brilliant guide. We place our ears against the bulging trunk of a bottle tree, tap gently and hear the echoing reservoir within, we stroke the silky paperbark tree (as an infant Uncle Wally was swaddled in this soft bark) and examine the dried flower head of the silky oak (when fresh, nectar is squeezed from the obliging pods; kids attack it like corn on a cob, he says).
In only an hour, Uncle Wally manages to illuminate what every botanic garden strives to be: a living ark for important genetic and intellectual material so frequently linked to food and medicine production.
Next time I stroll through the gardens I’ll be giving far greater regard to the trees that shade me. Christine McCabe GREG Nannup leads Aboriginal tours of Perth’s glorious 400ha Kings Park. We are to meet on the lawn opposite the state war memorial but no one looks a likely prospect. Finally I decide it must be that sprightly young man carrying an intriguing bag. Success, and after a hesitant introduction I’m finally shaking hands with my guide for a 90-minute walk.
Nannup tells me there is a small town to the south (pop. 1200) named after his ancestors. I am suitably impressed. His grandfather, Charles William Nannup, was born in the hills near Perth, which made him a
Planting the seeds of knowledge: Uncle Wally Kite, who conducts indigenous plant and bush tucker tours at the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide member of the local Wadjuk people, one of 14 tribal groups sharing a large pocket of land in the region. Wadjuk means carers of the link between the land and the ocean, I’m told. That link was the Swan River, which the Aborigines called Derbal Yarrigan.
Nannup says that sustainability was as big an issue then as it is today. If everyone lived in the same place the land would be stressed when it came to hunting and gathering food. Also, the land was burned each year to ensure it would grow back to its full potential. Looking back at the ancient wisdom and knowledge about caring for this country, fire was clearly important.
We pass a statue of former West Australian premier and explorer John Forrest. In 1890, Nannup’s greatgreat-great-great-grandfather travelled with Forrest as a guide. He tells me, with a touch of family pride, that the would-be premier wrote in his journal that without his guide’s help they all would have died. ‘‘ So I come from one of the longest-standing tour guiding families in Australia.’’
Our talk is rudely interrupted by the angry whirr of chainsaws making short work of a hefty gum but Nannup is unconcerned: ‘‘ They have to keep the park looking its best for visitors.’’
We walk past stands of plants representing areas of the state; it’s educational for those who can’t get out and see the real thing. The boab trees from the Kimberley region are 3000km from home. ‘‘ They don’t really like the climate too much,’’ admits Nannup. ‘‘ They hold water quite well. It was an emergency survival tree for the Aboriginal people of the north.’’ The seeds are also useful: when crushed they look like sherbet or flour. ‘‘ It doesn’t taste very good but it will keep you alive,’’ Nannup says.
The latest boab to arrive here — it was in the way of a new road — is a sizeable specimen. After four months it was sprouting leaves but it will take three to four years to know whether it will survive. At 750 years old, Nannup says it’s still a baby.
We move on to the peppermint tree, the leaves of which can be used to treat coughs and colds. But Nannup says the most useful plant for Aborigines was the grass tree, or balga. The fronds can be used as firelighters, the white pulp, which tastes a bit like coconut, can treat snakebites and the sap becomes a glue when combined with charcoal and kangaroo droppings. Nannup says it’s the oldest form of fibreglass.
Next comes the so-called medicine tree, or marri, which Nannup advises can cure just about anything. ‘‘ It’s magic stuff.’’ I wonder how these things are discovered but Nannup has the answer: ‘‘ It’s about the dreaming, the stories and the knowledge. If you want to learn something just go to sleep and the land will tell you.’’ I am starting to feel that if I were lost in the bush, my guide would be the perfect companion.
At a water feature, away from the chainsaw symphony, Nannup reveals the contents of his bag. It includes a kangaroo cloak — for clothing or bedding — a kodj, which is a stone axe held together with grass-tree glue, a spear thrower, a ceremonial knife, a yandi dish used for separating crushed seed, boomerangs and a digging stick used by Aboriginal women.
I am told a traditional story that has been handed down through Nannup’s family. It’s a long affair involving whales, rainbow serpents and child spirits. Nannup says a lot of Aborigines have lost their knowledge but he feels ‘‘ lucky that my father heard the stories from his Uncle Thomas around the campfire’’.
He says important places that were used by Aborigines are still serving the same purposes today. Kings Park, a favourite spot for Aboriginal wedding ceremonies, still hosts about 500 marriages a year. The land demands to be used for that purpose; it’s the most prime real estate in WA but spiritually for Aboriginal people it’s an important place. ‘‘ We are lucky to keep it,’’ Nannup concludes. Barry Oliver
Uncle Wally Kite leads free, hour-long Aboriginal Food and Plant walks, usually on the third Sunday of every month. Contact the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide: (08) 8222 9311; www.botanicgardens.sa.gov.au. The Kings Park Indigenous Tour, which runs daily, costs $15 (adults); $8 (children). More: (08) 9316 8190; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bgpa.wa.gov.au.