Medicine Country – The Kimberley Western Australia – by Lisa Williams – Medical Herbalist (NZAMH)

I begin today by acknowledging all of the indigenous people of the Kimberley the Traditional Custodians of the land all of which are represented by the Kimberly Land Council, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples there today. 

The remote Kimberley region in Australia’s north west is around 420,000 square kilometres in area and dates back to a time period of 1,800 million years. The indigenous people are believed to have lived here for around 65,000 years according to the carbon dating of some of the oldest rock art found in the area archived by the Bradshaw foundation.  Around 80% of the plant life that grow in the Kimberleys is not found anywhere else on earth. Its known by the locals  as Medicine Country.

Dream time lead me into the cradle of humanity, this vast untouched land. We travelled 7,500 kilometers laying down our song line, playing music at every camp, giving respect to the indigenous people who walked this land before us.

The people of this land are artists & musicians, quick talking and quick thinking, they take their work seriously. Some community art centres only use traditional paints made from bark & ochre, others allow the use of acrylics to paint bright beautiful powerful images of plants, silhouettes and landscapes to be used in ceremony.  This painting of the Bush Tucker Tomato symbolises my journey and was still wet when I purchased it from artist Jowelee Malay at the Broome market, I cradled it on my knee for many miles along the dusty red earth roads waiting for it to dry.

The Kimberley has a monsoonal climate with distinct wet and dry seasons.  The wet summer from December unto March  brings on the main flush of growth,  this is a time when much of the country becomes impassible by road.  The dry is virtually a drought with no rainfall between June & September.  Many Kimberley plants have an important place in the culture of the Aboriginal people as a food source, to make implements or to indicate a change in the season.  The rainforest consists of thousands of small patches of deciduous monsoon vine thickets embedded in savannah woodland.  These isolated vine thickets are rich in many plants that enclose their seeds in bright-coloured soft fruits which are eaten and dispersed readily by birds, different colours attracting different birds.

Delma Cox, my first teacher, is the grandmother at Gnylmarung aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsular – she is an amazing fisherwoman and during the time we camped on her land she generously introduced me to her bush tucker orchard so that I could begin to identify the various plant species.

Magabala – (Marsdenia viridiflora) is a popular fruit often known as bush banana, it’s a long green vine that grows on a host tree.  It’s collected during the wet, eaten raw when moist and sweet. The texture is crisp and the immature seeds taste like young green peas. Every part can be eaten – the skin, seeds and pulp.  The indigenous Magabala Book store is not surprisingly named after this popular vine – publishing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, artists and illustrators from all over Australia.

The five-petal Desert Rose, or Native Hibiscus, Vinkis plant was chosen by KSGAC (Kimberley Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation) to symbolise the scattering of the Stolen Generations and their resilience to the eugenic policies of Australia.   This Stolen Generation flower was adopted because it is found widely across Australia and it is a survivor. Its colour denotes compassion and spiritual healing.

Crabs Eye bean – Jinjalgurany – (Abrus precatorius)  are highly decorative but extremely toxic – children from the Beagle Bay mission made rosary beads from them – they’re toxicity can make women abort & become infertile.  One bean contains enough poison to kill an adult, this is released when the tough outer shell is cracked.

Top – Madorr Bark, Mid Left – Jikily flower; Middle – Kurrajong seedpod; Middle Right – Crabs Eye Bean; Bottom left – Marul Berry ; Bottom Middle – Magabala; far right – Willings tree flower.

Jikily Tree – Honey suckle tree (Bauhinia cunninghamii)  A widespread tree with clusters of bright red flowers make it very conspicuous. We suck the honey out of the red flowers and the birds do too. The sap is for a sore stomach and the wood makes good coals.  The bark and wood is used to treat headaches, as an antiseptic and remedy for a fever.

Marul Tree – (Terminalia petiolaris)  fruit resembles an Olive with a sweet blackberry taste and large pip.  These are a Kimberley endemic, meaning they are only found here and nowhere else in the world. Growing up to fourteen metres, and occurring mostly in monsoonal vine thicket, they withstand cyclone damage and are an essential canopy tree in this threatened ecological community.

Jacinta & Lenny live up on the magnificent cliffs at Pender Bay, they support the local mob by buying the Kakadu plums that grow on their land. These are processed and marketed as Kimberley Wild Gubinge in a very modern yet remote processing facility. Jacinta explained the Monsoon Vine Thicket in the protected vegetation area which they don’t burn.

The Gubinge commonly known as the Kakadu Plum – (Terminalia Ferdinandiana) has the highest natural source of Vitamin C on earth giving around 3150mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit, roughly equivalent to 60 times stronger than an orange.   Madoorr Bark from the Gubinge Tree makes a dark red concoction used for leg sores & insect bites. 

The Willings Tree or Caustic bush as it is commonly known (Grevillea dimidiata) is used for ceremony in aboriginal law initiation & circumcision, during mens business they go bush for one month and the women hold the sacred space performing their own ceremonies on certain days in correlation with the men. The mothers and sisters make a braid from their hair to tie around their sons waist as a reminder that they are there supporting them on their journey into manhood.

Desert Bloodwood – Jukulu / Marroolal – (Corymbia bella) – Red gum is medicinal – applied to sore teeth.  Bark is burnt to provide ash to mix with chewing tobacco.  When a tree bleeds the sap flows until it crystallises, apply the sticky gum directly to sores or cuts as an antiseptic. If the sap is in a dried form, it can be crushed into powder and boiled in water to use as an antiseptic wash.  Also used to tan kangaroo-skin waterbags.  The roots store water, dig up the roots and drain into a container.

Bundy from the Bardi Jawi mob at Kooljaman says “Follow the Bower bird, he’ll show you the way, he’ll let you know the seasons, when the fruits and berries are ripening.  The Brulger bird will guide you into the dreamtime, the Oraralee (seagull) will appear when the bait fish are running and larger shoals of fish will come through”.

Boab Tree – (Adansonia gregorii) is symbolic with its immense swollen trunk and striking silhouette, favouring the rich loamy soils of the Fitzroy & Ord valleys.  The root fibres are made into string, the white pith of the large woody pendulous fruit is sucked out and tastes like sherbet and is very refreshing, the seeds are ground into a white paste and the fruits are frequently carved or etched. The hollow trunk of the tree fills with water during the wet providing water storage during the dry.

Kimberley Rose & Kurrajong Seeds – (Brachychiton populneus–  are highly nutritious seeds extracted from hairy pods providing a great source of nectar for bees and other foragers.  Various parts of the plant provide food sources, roasted and ground seeds produce exceptionally rich dark flour used in  bread, the roasted seeds can be eaten or ground as a coffee substitute, and the tap root is edible & nutritious, similar to a carrot.

Pandanus (Spiralus) is an important food plant, It’s a widespread tree with razor sharp spines found along waterways, coastal areas and woodlands often forming large dense stands.  A ten metre tall Palm like tree with fruit resembling a wooden pineapple turning red when ripe.  It splits into segments which fall to the ground, the kernels inside the fruit segments are eaten raw or lightly roasted. The fruit itself is chewed or sucked for juice, a preparation from the core of the stem of aerial roots are used to make medicines, eaten, drunk or applied to treat stomach pain, colds, toothache, headaches and ulcers. Pared leaves are used for weaving mats, baskets, shoes and dilly bags.

Joongoon  – (Mimusops elengi)  Fruit is a prized resource eaten raw or warmed in hot ashes. 100g of fruit contains 46g moisture, 2.4g protein, 1g ash, no fat, 49g carbohydrates, 161.8mg calcium, 402mg potassium, 229mg sodium and 1.5mg ascorbic acid.  Eating too many can cause constipation.  It’s found in India where the bark, flowers, fruits and seeds are used in Ayurvedic medicine being astringent, cooling, anthelmintic, tonic and febrifuge. It is mainly used for dental ailments such as bleeding gums, pyorrhea and loose teeth.

Kapok Bush – Cotton Tree – (Cochlospermum fraseri grows particularly well in sandstone habitats. Within the fruit the seeds are imbedded in white cotton-like hair, the roots of young trees are dug up and roasted on coals. Flower petals are eaten raw. The cotton hairs of the seed capsules are used as body decoration. 

The Strychnine tree – (Strychnos lucida) grows throughout this region – it’s highly toxic and bitter quality explains why there was so much fruit left on the tree near the end of the dry season, wild animals and birds know to keep away.  A tiny seed can kill any mammal, it is a major source of the highly poisonous alkaloids strychnine and brucine.  It has primarily been used as a pesticide, particularly to kill rats. The homeopathic Nux Vomica is made from this plant and medical journals describe its use in Indian pharmacopeia and Chinese medicine, although widely used in western medicine before World War II, it has no present use.  Although recent medical studies have found outstanding promising use for this potently toxic plant.

Rosella plant –  (Hibiscus Sabdariffa)  Is a delicious bush tucker plant and is thought to have been brought to Australia by Indonesian fishermen, thousands of years ago.  The red edible calyxes are high in vitamin C with a tart-sweet flavour which goes well in salads, one of the women at a camp in Kalumbaru made beautiful jellies, red sauces and jams. It also makes flavoursome cordials, syrups, fruit teas and wine.

The desert has a peace all its own where one feels tranquil and complete in its vast open space.  There is a harshness and a gentleness to this land – a peaceful quiet that could take ones life if you’re not prepared.   One can’t help but quietly mourn for the original people of this land and the destruction of their culture by the colonists. I came to experience some form of healing but quickly realised that the indigenous people of this land that require the healing.

The original people are an inherently peaceful race – highly superstitious,  Ngankari healers believe in astral travel at night where they visit the stars, their relatives and the people they are concerned about.    The elders say that time spent in dreamtime connects us to the inner realms of awareness. Ngangkari healers offer three main forms of healing, including bush medicine, smoking ceremony and re-aligning the spirit.

We walked though underground cave systems and read the rock art at the various cave galleries on the Mitchell Plateau tuning into times past and the new drawings keeping the galleries alive.  Earth shelters & floors were made by grinding and mixing the hard concrete like cellulose shell of the termite mounds with soil and water to create a tough outer shell & surface that endures the rain, wind & heat.  When someone dies their body is buried within a termite mound and is consumed.  

Bruce Pascoes book Dark Emu relays information about vast yam plantations and stooked grain fields as far as the eye can see, referenced from many early european explorers diaries expressing that these people were not merely nomadic but gardeners and propagators of large crops. 

There is a double edged sword with the Australian Governments regime of scrub burning to reduce the fuel load of bush fires if lightening strikes – some seeds are germinated by the heat, other plants less resilient, die off in areas regularly burnt and the reduction in biodiversity is obvious.  Various nuts and seeds are roasted and good to eat after the inferno passes and the morning dew puts the fires out.  

The Kimberley is a stable land with months of dry and months of wet when the windjana gods drop life giving rain.  The smell of the desert after the rain is a beautiful rich earthy woody scent of sandalwood and eucalyptus.  

Where the Gibb River Road ends on the fertile Kununara plains, 12,000 hectares of Indian Sandalwood plantation grows 5 million trees.  Being a hemiparasite, each sandalwood requires at least 4 host trees. Its a noble tree, revered for its ubiquitous wellbeing properties. Its high value has caused over exploitation, to the point where the wild population is vulnerable to extinction. Indian sandalwood still commands high prices for its essential oil owing to its high alpha santalol content.  This Australian grown Indian Sandalwood Quintis Santalum Album ® is claimed to be the only pharmaceutical grade sandalwood in the world.  The most notable sandalwoods in the world are Indian and Australian, each with its own distinct aroma profile. Australian sandalwood grows in the arid central west of Australia; whereas the Indian species is now grown in the sub-tropical north.  Medical qualities claim to help eczema, acne, psoriasis, oral mucositis and Human papillomavirus. The nut is bland, light textured and mucilaginous.

Kimberley White gum (Eucalyptus houseana)  leaves are poisonous to most animals and humans, we can’t safely ingest eucalyptus. However, clinical studies have indicated that eucalyptus leaves and its oils have promising antifungal and antiseptic properties when applied topically.  To make a eucalyptus inhalant, add a few drops of eucalyptus oil or a handful of leaves to hot water or a vaporizer and deeply inhale the steam vapor for  five to 10 minutes at a time to help clear the lungs.

Clarrie Djanghara, president of Kalumburu Aboriginal Community Council was my guide in Kalumburu and asked me to help educate people about their ways. During the short time I spent with him I began to understand the struggles they have faced as a remote community, the long road of reconciliation for past grievances, and the great desire for their people to advance.  I purchased two paintings in his village from siblings Ann and Joshua, both talented in their own right. Ann’s painting is styled on the complex bent knee period, where the figures are carrying dilly bags filled with herbs.

The Kimberley is the last great botanical frontier in Australia.  The region’s plants may harbour secrets that could shed light on Australia’s botanical history.  During one recent scientific expedition, 10 new species were collected in six days, there are not many places in the world where finding this many new species is possible, All specimens are carefully studied, labelled, named and preserved at the Western Australian Herbarium or propagated at Kings Park’s Biodiversity Conservation Centre, in Perth.

There is alot of money to be made in cosmetics, medicines and health foods which use properties derived from a number of Australian native plants.  Dr Daniel Robinson from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales has been working on the implications of patents over Australian native plants.  There is potentially a massive loss of opportunity here as biological resources could be exploited overseas without the opportunity for small indigenous enterprises to tap into their natural resources.  It’s also culturally offensive to certain indigenous groups when others use these plants and patent them without their consent. 

Australia has signed an agreement called the Nagoya Protocol, it’s essentially about closing the Bio-piracy loophole … where people haven’t sought consent and haven’t agreed to share benefits where they’ve used both a biological resource and or traditional knowledge from a traditional group. There’s been many cases globally and Australia appears to be uncovering more making sure sovereign biological resources and also biological resources that are under custodianship of indigenous groups and stewardship, require an agreement and permit on control of their use.

Today I am propagating the seeds of the Vinkis plant that Delma gave me, representing the stolen generation, these may not grow so well in my wet homeland but they are planted firmly in my heart with strong roots and a deep respect for this ancient culture that requires recognition, preservation and propagation.

My sincere thanks goes to Max Williams, Geoff Williams, Delma & Alfonz Cox at Gnylmarung, Jacinta & Lenny at Kimberley Wild Gubinge,  Bundy at Kooljaman, Guide Clarrie Djanhara – Kalumburu , Guides Albert & Alfonz – Wunambal Gaambera mob Kulumbaru, Rebecca of the Gija mob Purnalulu.

Written by: Lisa Williams – Medical Herbalist (NZAMH) Registered Iridologist (IRISNZ – IIPA)


Common Plants of the Kimberleys – Government Dept of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

El Questro – Kimberley – Top 20 Plants

Wild Food Plants of Australia – Tim Low

Dark Emu – Brice Pascoe

Philippine Medicinal Plants Database

African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines

Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngankari – Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation

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