Two good articles on Oz plants from ‘Beating Around the Bush’ – The Conversation

  1. Grass trees aren’t a grass (and they’re not trees)

by John Patykowski

Plant ecologist, Deakin University

2. The mysterious Pilostyles is a plant within a plant

Steve Wylie
Molecular virology, virus ecology and evolution, metagenomics, symbiosis, Murdoch University

Jen Mccomb
Emeritus professor, Murdoch University

Kevin Thiele
Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia

Macrozamia – a little local knowledge makes a lot of difference

Peter Macinnis, in his 2012 book ‘Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists’ mentions the unfortunate experience of some of the shore party from Willem de Valmingh’s 1697 visit to what we now call Western Australia:

“Some of the men tried the seeds from a zamia palm, Macrozamia riedlei, which can be harmful or even lethal if they are not prepared correctly. Upper surgeon Mandrop Torst recorded a description in the Nijptangh’s log:

I ate five or six of them, and drank of the water from a small pool, but after an interval of about three hours, I and five others who had eaten of these fruits began to vomit so violently that we were as if dead men, so that it was with the greatest difficulty that I and the crew regained the shore, and thence in company with the skipper were put on board the galliot, leaving the rest on shore.” (Macinnis 2012:17-18 – Macinnis cites Stephen Hooper – reference at end)

It is not clear to me if the Dutch explorers had seen evidence of local First Peoples – Noongar/Nyungar – harvesting the fruit/seeds of the zamia palm. They did not meet with any local people during their short stay. But it is highly likely that some evidence of people eating these seeds at their camps. Local people knew how to treat the fruit before consuming.

Philip Clarke, in his 2007/2011 book ‘Aboriginal People and Their Plants’ notes, of zamia palms/cycads:

“Archaeologists believe that the Aboriginal use of this food source, through leaching technology, started becoming more important to the diet during the late Pleistocene, about 13,000 years ago.” (2011:91)

“Aboriginal techniques for judging whether the poison has successfully been removed for the cycad nuts include crumbling , smelling and visually inspecting them.’ (ibid)

Clearly, a little local knowledge, learnt from experience, can make a lot of difference (and, yes, metaphors abound in regard to the colonisation methods used by British in this country).


Macrozamia – from Greek, I understand, for large date palm (in appearance).

Reidlei – see

Macrozamia riedlei, commonly known as zamia or zamia palm, is a species of plant in the Zamiaceae family. The Noongar names for the plant are baiandjirijikoondagoor and quinning.[2]

Footnote 2 leads to “Noongar names for plants” to

(Note the attribution there by Bob Howard of the work of Dr Ian Abbott ” Aboriginal Names for Plant Species in South-Western Australia” by Dr Ian Abbott (Forest Department of Western Australia Technical Paper No 5, 1983). I could not track down an online version of Dr Abbott’s paper.


  1. There is an excellent article about these fruit/seeds – and how they were treated and which part was probably eaten – by Ken Macintyre and Barb Dodson. Well worth taking the time to read.

‘The ancient practice of Macrozamia pit processing in southwestern Australia.’

2. ‘Aboriginal vernacular names of Australian cycads of Macrozamia, Bowenia and Lepidozamia spp.: A response to ‘Cycads in the vernacular: A compendium of local names.’ Asmussen, Brit, Australian Aboriginal Studies, Nov 01, 2012; Vol. 2012, No. 2, p. 54-71 (and see her two other papers on the disputed role of Macrozamia for seasonal feastings). [I found my free copy via the database on my local Council library service.]

3. See the comprehensive work of Dr David Nash mentioned below.


Asmussen makes the point:

“Non-Western taxonomies.

Despite the early involvement of Aboriginal peoples in describing Australian plants (Clarke 2008:42), no Aboriginal names are reflected in the Linnaean system of classification for Bowenia, Lepidozamia or Macrozamia. Instead, Linnaean names for these plants honour Europeans or reference physical features, growth habits of plants or their geographic locations … In fact, very few Australian plants have an Aboriginal name including a species name.” (2012:65)

It strikes me that this European practice of naming plants – re-naming plants – has made use of a process which brings to mind what Claude Levi-Strauss called a ‘totemic operator (The Savage Mind 1966:152-153). See image below.

However, where the totemic operator makes use of species (and parts thereof) to introduce distinctions into social life (Bear Clan, Eagle Clan – or to make other conceptual distinctions, including the group-defined identity of an individual) the Linnaean (etc) process is inverted.

In the case of Naturalists, features of the social landscape (significant to European intellectuals) have been called upon to generate – and thereby ‘immortalise’ – species (and genera) names for plants from the names (surnames?) of people whose significance is often restricted to the very narrow world of a European Naturalist society. See the further reading (below) on ‘Linnaeus’s trivial names’.

It is beyond my ability to fully explore this rich area as explored by Levi- Strauss. What the naming process does achieve, in the name of science, is a recasting of the entire botanical world in terms which systematically privilege European understanding.

“All is new” arises because European high society – these are aristocratic pursuits, the names are also coded in Latin and Greek – did not feel any necessity to establish diplomatic relations with First Peoples; learn their languages and systems of classification. The world of First Peoples is to be passed-over to make epistemological space for the Eurocentric New World.

This book looks worth reading (but at £75 doubt I ever will):


Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

Vol. No.: 2018:01

Through focusing on the circulation of Linnaean knowledge and placing it within the context of eighteenth-century globalization, authors provide innovative and important contributions to our understanding of the early modern history of science.


My point is that modern science, which seeks to privilege itself as being ‘beyond everyday social life’ is itself a socially constructed activity/practice. Naturalism rests on a myth of ‘nature’ and an imaginary ability of a few to directly access reality – while the Ways of others may be cast aside as being based on distorted perceptions, mental shortcomings etc.

In this way a cultural code was created which enabled communication between those who had access to it, while excluding others. Non-aristocratic aspirants to the new order could apply for associate membership, taking their cues from their cultural masters. I will follow this up went I get to Sir Joseph Banks.


The false certainties of ‘modern’ are losing their hold over us and, in the space provided by genuine doubts, new forms of representation are emerging. Times are changing.

Asmussen notes:

“In recognition of a lack of Indigenous names, efforts are being made to identify and publicise preferred Aboriginal names and spellings for certain species and plant components.” (ibid)

Asmussen cites, as one example of attempts to recognise indigenous names, a visually rich and informative document by the City of Joondalup. ‘Plants and People in Mooro Country. Nyungar Plant Use in Yellagonga Regional Park’

Well worth a look. See pages 71-73. Download from:


There is a fine examination of Linnaean names incorporating First Peoples terms by Dr David Nash in his article ‘Reviving unique words: The niche of scientific names.’

He also proposes that the use of words from endangered languages (such as those of some First Peoples in this country) in the scientific naming of species may provide a safe haven for them. He concludes his article:

“Biologists show that there is an immense increase in the number of identified biological species, and that most species are yet to be identified:

Assessment of this pattern for all kingdoms of life on Earth predicts _8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) species globally, of which _2.2 million (±0.18 million SE) are marine. Our results suggest that some 86% of the species on Earth, and 91% in the ocean, still await description (Mora, Tittensor, Adl, Simpson, & Worm 2011)

Thus there is a corresponding demand for unique names appropriate for these species. Endangered languages are clearly an excellent source for these names, and the adoption of endangered words into scientific nomenclature will in a small way assist the survival of words that otherwise would have been lost.” ( )

And see also his Addenda


Continue reading “Macrozamia – a little local knowledge makes a lot of difference”

Black Swan Song v ‘Modern’ Certainty


Willem de Vlamingh, the Dutch commander of the three ships searching for survivors of a Dutch East Indies ship the Ridderschap van Holland, is the name associated with the European ‘discovery’ of the black swan.

In January 1697, having already been a few days on the Island they named “Rottnest” (Ratnest – after the quokkas, small marsupials Setonix brachyurus they saw there – P. Macinnis, ‘Curious Minds’ 2012:16), de Vlamingh and some of his men crossed over to the mainland. They soon came to the river they subsequently named Zwaanenriver – Swan River.

(Another source says “The de Vlamingh expedition resulted in the name ‘Swarte Swaene-Revier’(Black Swan River), named after the black swans they saw there.” Plants and People in Mooro Country:  Nyungar Plant Use in Yellagonga Regional Park )

It was here that one form of European certainty came to an end – for here they encountered a large water bird that looked like a swan but it was black.

In the European tradition not only were swans white, but it was considered a tautology (self-evident truth) to say “Swans are white”.

The encounter with this new water-bird (in what they would come to call New Holland) presents a famous and well-known dilemma for European thinking. In relation to whiteness is a defining characteristic of swans then either:

  1. despite the new black bird being like a swan in all other respects, it cannot be a swan.
  2. whiteness is not a defining characteristic of swans, and the black bird is a swan.

Today we have no difficulty in accepting that that these birds are black swans. European certainly was proven to be wrong.


Cygnus cygnusCygnus atratus

One example of First Peoples names for Black Swan from the relevant area (

Swan gooljak, kooleeja, maalee

Described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790, the black swan was formerly placed into a monotypic genus, Chenopis.” (Wikipedia- Back Swan)


From the Australian Museum website we learn


















The expression “new to science” is often heard in relation to forms of life which have been known to First Peoples for tens of thousands of years. The European Age of Reason – perhaps dazzled by the opportunities of ‘new’ lands and ‘new’ resources – was particularly blind to the important place in life for indigenous people in the “New World”.

Rather than embracing First Peoples – and their systems of naming and classification – Naturalists fashioned a ‘fetish’ object which they inserted into their newly minted ‘natural’ conception of creation, rendering it ‘fit’ for intellectual consumption.

The idea of taste (le goût) was a social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific developments of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class.[185] From this basis, naturalists could then develop their own social ideals based on their scientific works”


This movement from doubt and certainty to doubt and certainty as a process in refining knowledge. See, for example, the classic ‘Doubt and Certainty in Science’ by J Z Young (

The certainly provided by the ideas of creation as contained in the Bible, for example, were already giving way in 1697. The locus of European understanding was shifting from a geocentric world as created by God to a heliocentric system. Copernicus, died 1543, and Galileo (died 1642) are two names associated with this shift.

From a world view in which the stars were fixed overhead in relation to the earth, the earth itself was seen to be on the move. Soon, new ideas about time would also replace the Biblical account of creation. The European idea of the centre of Being was on the move.

New cosmologies were now being crafted. And it is into that historical context that the cultural code of Naturalism emerges. Views of life as part of a Great Chain of Being – with a top-down form of organisation – continued to be of influence with a stress or privileging of vertical metaphors. Metaphysical or sacred aspect is removed to produce a ‘secular’ form of representation.

These new cosmologies provide a vehicle for the aspirations of a rising wealthy elite vis-à-vis a declining elite. New forms of wealth were being tapped into by European countries. The trading operations of the Dutch East India Company brought the Dutch to the West Coast of this continent. (Interestingly, Dutch anthropology in now Indonesia explored and appreciated dual organisation to a greater degree (in my opinion) than British anthropology.)

The new social landscaped contains people like Banks, Humboldt and Darwin – all wealthy people who could undertake the conceptual work of Naturalism. And then, in their train, a whole class of minor conceptual craftspeople seeking to improve their social and economic position in life.

The culturally one-sided forms of reason are typified by a particular type of abstraction; hierarchy and notions of ‘genealogy’. More on this later.


The human brain has two complementary opposite hemispheres and this provides a useful model for First Peoples systems of interpreting and ordering experience. Think Yin – Yang – but highly elaborated. Eaglehawk and Crow are two well know complementary opposite systems.

It is like a double-entry system of book-keeping – for every entry on the left side there has to be a corresponding (counterbalancing?) entry on the right side.

Modern anthropology has increasingly come to appreciate the role of complementary opposition in Australia. This is not the place to document that all that. Ken Maddock was one anthropologist who appreciated its importance.

With ‘modern’ systems of abstraction part of a whole (A) is privileged and the remainder (non-A) is, as it were, discarded. First Peoples systems take a lot more care – every mental operation (of note?) takes as much care with the positioning of the (non-A) as it does with the placement of(A). (I don’t know how to talk about A and non-A in terms which provide equal weighting to both sides.)

Added to this, the concern for balance acts to keep abstraction more closely tied to the sensory level – rather than taking off into a one-sided (unbalanced/unstable) conceptual stratosphere. Claude Levi-Strauss explored ‘sensory’ logic in his book known as “The Savage Mind” (a very poor translation from his title in French). He had also written on Dual Organisation (which he briefly reviews in his chapter19 ‘The Bipartite Ideology of ‘ the Amerindians’ in his 1991 ‘Histoire de Lynx’ (English 1995:225-242) ‘The Story of Lynx’))

Qualities may be represented by a particular bird. The Willie Wagtail, for a Western Arrernte Dreaming story example, may represent a brave and perhaps dominating quality (telling an enormous serpent what to do!). Male Willie Wagtails, I read elsewhere, raise their ‘eye-brows’ to fight! There is a whole world of abstract qualities represented in all the Dreaming narratives.

What I have yet to track down is where Swan would be placed in the dual-sided forms of knowledge (‘Moieties”) which typify First Peoples systems of interpreting and classifying their world.


From an orthodox perspective in this country, Black Swan is located in one ‘conceptual hemisphere’ and has relationships with the overall configuration formed by both hemispheres.

The late C G Von Brandenstein’s research into an ‘Aboriginal Ecological Order’ – a ‘superstructure of the highest philosophical order’ – places Black Swan, Cygnus atratus, in his CSF category for Kidja, Lungga people. Cold + Moist/Slow + Flatter? (‘Names and Substances of the Australian Subsection System’ 1982:113 and Figure 1.31 pp 24-25) (Also in the ‘Mythological’ moiety C (as opposed to W) – Cold as opposed to Warm?)

The major complementary opposite hemispheres are sometimes named as White Cockatoo – Crow (SW Australia?) and Eaglehawk and Crow in different parts of the country (SE Australia)

Another quick search, which also touches on the markings of black and white birds, Peter Hancock writes:

“In the past, the Noongar had two great family groups – the crows (Wardong) and the white cockatoos (Mandich) – and for a crow to marry a crow or a cockatoo to marry a cockatoo was regarded as incest and severely punished.”

A very brief search on Black Swan and Dreaming stories place Black Swans (initially White, like their cygnets?) on the side of the Crows and in opposition to Eaglehawk. See material from K Langloh Parker ‘Australian Legendary Tales’ – and note link from feathers to Flannel Flowers (& Sun as Woman) – at

More research needed. Check Daisy Bates materials e.g.


There is much more to be said on these themes. Briefly, it is time for a new sense of ‘taste’ – a sense which is bi-culturally balanced and which regards First Peoples methods of classifying, naming, and knowledge of ‘things’ as an essential part of what counts as adequate forms of representation. The privileging of European forms at the expense of those of First Peoples is drawing to a close.

This shift is already underway with a renewed interest, on a formal level, with ‘ontology’ – and a more down-to-earth movement in other parts of life.


  1. Locate the Swan River area on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) map of indigenous languages of
  2. Check out and note the sub-entry “Indigenous Australia’
  3. Follow the link on ‘Noongar People’ at the Wikipedia sub-entry on Indigenous Australia
  4. Check out indigenous words for Swan at Daisy Bates Online”

Further reading:
Continue reading “Black Swan Song v ‘Modern’ Certainty”

Linnaeus – Making a start in this country before Botany Bay

I happened to be watching Gardening Australia on ABC TV recently and was surprised to learn that a plant from this country had been ‘named under our modern system of scientific nomenclature” in 1768. That is, before James Cook and Joseph Banks sailed north along the East Coast in 1770.

FROM GARDENING AUSTRALIA (Josh Byrne is presenting):

SERIES 29 | Episode 21

Within the Western Australian horticultural family, I’d often heard of the name Alex George and how his knowledge of Australian flora was legendary. Keen to meet him, I did some digging and was surprised to find out he lives just a stone’s throw from my place.

“This one’s Synaphea spinulosa from the Proteaceae family,” he tells Josh. “It’s an interesting plant for me because it’s one of the first two Australian plants named under our modern system of scientific nomenclature named in 1768 by a botanist in Holland. That’s as big as it grows and it’s a good one for the garden because it suckers, so it will spread slowly, but stay fairly compact.”

Very good picture by MainlandQuokka (copyleft – Creative Commons )

File:Synaphea spinulosa subsp. spinulosa.JPG


The Dutch botanist is given as Nicolaas Laurens Burman, who classified the plant Polypodium spinulosum. He did not name it Synaphea spinulosa.

It was renamed Synaphea spinulosa by Robert Brown in 1810 “from the Greek name for union or connection, describing an anomaly in the structure of the flower.” (

This 1768 instance is one those of us interested in the renaming process in this country should know. The actual plant used for the classification is still in existence, although who collected in is not certain.

Alex George raised this in the Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter Vol. 89 1996:20-21:

“It is possible that the first Australian plant specimens collected by Europeans, and the first to be named under the Linnaean system of nomenclature (in 1768), were gathered by Vlamingh or one of his crew. These are Acacia truncata (Burm. f.) Hart. ex Hoffmannsegg and Synaphea spinulosa (Burm. f.) Merrill. The types of both are sterile and bear no collection details. In the protologue, Burman gave the locality as ‘ex Java’-presumably he received them among other collections from the East Indies. He considered them to be ferns, naming the acacia as Adiantum truncatum and the synaphea as Polypodium spinulosum. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries a number of Dutch ships touched on the Western Australian coast but there is no information on whether any crew member gathered specimens. Synaphea spinulosa is common along the lower west coast between Bunbury and Kalbarri and is highly variable, but the type matches closely specimens collected later from the coastal plain either side of the Swan River. Acacia truncata occurs from Leeman to Bunbury.” ( )

There is information on Willem de Vlamingh in Peter Macinnes’ book “Curious Minds : The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists.” 2012: 16-19. Basically, Willem de Vlamingh arrived in what is now the Perth area in 1696 while searching for a missing ship (Ridderschap van Holland). Three ships reached what they named Rottnest Island and then sailed onto the mainland and the Swan River – Zwaanenrivier – and the all important Black Swan. They did not directly interact with any First Peoples.

See and. while there check out the extent of Dutch visits to the West Coast of this country.

This 1768 Linnaean classification marks the comparatively recent start of the European process which has displaced indigenous systems of classification and naming.

Beyond this European process, which was based on a hierarchical reasoning process which regarded certain features of plants as significant, lies the very different cosmology of First Peoples – and into which plants (and much else) are assigned a position in dual- sided systems of categorisation. We have a lot to learn about what First Peoples regarded as significant.

I am yet to find any First Peoples material about this plant.

What I intend to take up next is the European realisation that whiteness is not a defining characteristic of swans – and relate that to the speculation of Charles Darwin, while in this country in 1836, regarding two creations.

Bruce Reyburn

23 August 2018

Continue reading “Linnaeus – Making a start in this country before Botany Bay”

Strelitzia reginae – Sir Joseph Banks and systems of patronage and alliance.

I came across another example of a creative process by which the names of plants in the ‘colonies’ were given a European spin. While it is not an example from this country we call Australia there is a link with Sir Joseph Banks – formerly known as “the Father of Australia.”

The increasingly familiar ‘bird of paradise’ plant has the botanical name of Strelitzia reginae. The picture below is from our back garden.
I keep seeing this plant everywhere at the moment, as though it is reminding me to write this short piece.



Wikipedia entry says that the plant is native to South Africa. See

I have not seen an indigenous South African name for this plant. But have not done an extensive search. Note also the role of Banks in Africa

Note that one variation of the plant has been reclaimed as ‘Mandela’s Gold’ – but the names for the genus remain tied to a distant European political realm.

The International Plant Names Index says:

Strelitzia reginae plate

Standard Form:

Strelitzia reginae [plate]

TL2 Author:

Banks, Joseph


Jun ? 1788


Published as t. 2 in Aiton, Hortus Kewensis vol. 1 (1789) but distributed earlier by Banks (vide D.J. Mabberley, Kew Bull. 66: 475-477. 2011)

Id: 20011982-1 Version: View Record history

Banks was a very wealthy man who financed the scientific component of the voyage of the Endeavour (two years income). I am not sure of the exact sources of his family’s fortune.

The very useful book “RHS Practical Latin for Gardeners” by James Armitage provides an illustration and some information (2016:140):



“reginae” is “Relating to a Queen, as in Strelitzia reginae


Armitage tells us that Charlotte was the wife of George III – well known as the British sovereign in whose name this continent and its offshore islands were claimed. So the name of the plant, which appears to originate in South Africa, is obtained by the marriage of a European monarch. George III was part of the German version of the British Royal Family.

Queen Charlotte was a patroness of the arts and an amateur botanist, who helped expand Kew Gardens“. Banks, President of the Royal Society, was also appointed an Honorary Director of Kew Gardens by George III. (source –


But where is the Duchy of Meckenberg-Strelitz?

A long way from South Africa!

It is by these mono-cultural means – wealthy patrons in European courts and their systems of alliance – that new names were fashioned to replace indigenous names.

To find out more about the realities this process displaced, we have to look well beyond the newly fashioned form of representation.

Bunya pines – article by Ian Wright republished from The Conversation + learning

The Conversation is starting a series on Australian plants, Beating Around the Bush,  and is seeking input from Indigenous Masters students.

(More info at

I am republishing their first  article by Ian Wright on Bunya Pines. (Republished as allowed from The Conversation) as this coincides with my own intention, during 2018, to learn a little more of the ‘Dreaming’  significance of plants for First Peoples. 

Keep in mind some of these self-learning opportunities:

Self-learning exercise 1 – research which First Peoples had rights in the Bunya pine nuts. Which language group? See link in article.   Use the map and other resources at 

Self-learning exercise 2. – research the extent of networks of First Peoples who were invited to the Bunya nut feasts.  What is happening today?  (google search ‘bunya nut festival’)

Self-learning exercise 3. – find other places where large gatherings of First Peoples took place when the seasons were good. Could people attending one gathering also link up with people attending a different large gathering? What exchanges of information could flow by these means?

I am wondering about what the Dreaming significance of Bunya Pines may be? Don’t know the answer.

Bruce Reyburn

24 May 2018


Bunya pines are ancient, delicious and possibly deadly

    File 20180522 51135 rg8xdp.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
        Flickr/Tatters/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

Welcome to the first edition of Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian. Read more about the series here or get in touch to pitch a plant at

The Bunya pine is a unique and majestic Australian tree – my favourite tree, in fact. Sometimes simply called Bunya or the Bunya Bunya, I love its pleasingly symmetrical dome shape.

But what I really love about it is that there are just so many bizarre and colourful stories about this tree – the more you learn, the more you find it fascinating. (That is, unless the tree has harmed you; they come with some hazard warnings.)



Read more:

Curious Kids: Where did trees come from?




Can you grow it?

Bunya pines (botanical name: Aracauria bidwilli) are living fossils. They come come from a fascinating family of flora, the Araucariaceae, which grew across the world in the Jurassic period. Many of its “cousins” are extinct. The remaining members of the family are spread across the former landmasses of Gondwana, particularly South America, New Zealand, Malaysia and New Caledonia, as well as Australia.

This family includes one of the most amazing botanical discoveries of the 20th century, the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis).



Read more:

Where the old things are: Australia’s most ancient trees



Bunyas used to be much more widespread than they are now. Today they grow in the wild in only a few locations in southeast and north Queensland. One such area, the Bunya Mountains, is the remains of an old shield volcano – about 30 million years old, with peaks rising to more than 1,100 metres. The Bunya pines grow in fertile basalt soils in this cool and moist mountain environment.

If you want to grow a Bunya, I would suggest that you need a large garden. The tree needs fertile and well-drained soil, and regular watering in drier climates. A shaded position will also help – it can struggle in direct sunlight in its youth.

Bunyas also produce highly valued timber, which is used for musical instruments. It is particularly valued as “tonewood” for producing stringed instruments’ sound boards. Saw logs for Bunyas come from plantations only, as they are protected in their national park wild habitat.

Stand well back!

While many people love Bunya pines, this love affair comes with a health warning. They are best regarded with both distance and respect!

The trees are big and typically range from 20m to 50m in height. Their leaves have strings of very rigid and sharply pointed leaves. If you come into physical contact with its leaves or branches, you must wear protective clothes and carefully handle them to avoid pain or even cuts. As a child, the swinging branch of a Bunya made a formidable garden weapon.

But that is nothing compared to this tree’s ability to hit you on the head, possibly with serious consequences. When in season (generally December to March) they can produce dozens of massive cones weighing up to 10 kilograms. These can drop from up to 50m without warning.

TreeMappa 2.0/Flickr, CC BY

I first learned of this when a fellow university student in the 1980s scored an impressively large Bunya cone dent in the roof of his battleship-solid FB Holden ute. My university campus has beautiful gardens displaying dozens of massive Bunyas, but one was perhaps a bit close to the car park. My university friend was lucky not to get hit. Many people have not been so lucky and some have even been hospitalised.

Bunya pines are beautiful trees in large gardens  and are a feature of parks around Australia, but their habit of “bombing” people and property causes considerable angst. Many local councils erect warning signs or rope off the danger zone during cone season. Others hire contractors to remove the cones to protect their residents (and perhaps limit their own legal liability). Sadly, some Bunya pines have been cut down to remove the risk.

Indigenous use

The cultural connection of the Bunya pine to Aboriginal Australians is very powerful. The Bunya Mountains in southeast Queensland used to host massive gatherings of Aboriginal groups.

People came to visit the Bunya pines and feasted on the nuts in their abundant cones.  Some travelled from hundreds of kilometres away, and traditional hostilities were dropped to allow access. The seed in the Bunya cone is a delicious and nutritious food, a famous and celebrated example of Australian bush tucker.

TreeMappa 2.0/Flickr, CC BY

Today some trees remain marked with hand and foot holes that Aborigines made in the trunks of older Bunyas. The climbers must have been brave and agile to harvest the cones from such heights.

Sadly, the last of the Aboriginal Bunya festivals was held in about 1900, as European loggers came to the area for its many timber resources.

The ConversationBut even those European timber pioneers realised the significance of the Bunya Mountains area. The Bunya Mountains National Park was declared in 1908, creating Queensland’s second national park.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dual forms of representation: K’Gari- Fraser Island

Quick Draft 1.

Outline for an Ozstudies course: Dual versus single-sided forms of representation.

1. Read Chapter 3 “Eliza Fraser: Myth and Legend” in “Cooloola Coast” by Elaine Brown (2000 Uni of Queensland Press) See front and back covers below.

2. Read:

Cannibals and Savages: The Power of Colonial Storytelling

Do you know where the name ‘Fraser Island’ comes from? Eliza Fraser’s story is one of the finest tabloid spins in history.

By Georgia Mokak (accessed 30 August 2017)

3. Key activity – View the 10 minute interactive at

4. Optional extras: Check out related work of Sidney Nolan, Patrick White and film-makers – role of imagination and the cultural construction of forms of representation. (See also Edward Said 1993 “Culture & Imperialism”?)

Self learning exercise 1. – compare and contrast indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives on this story.

Self learning exercise 2. – dual naming and the official recognition of indigenous languages and place names.

(Next – the semantic domain of official statues in civic places. See Stan Grant re Cook ) 

cooloola 1001.jpg

Cosmos~flower 2 – moving beyond ‘wild’ flowers

Part Two – Moving beyond ‘Wild’ flowers.

(This is draft material which i prepared before setting out on the present (May 2017) road trip to Central Australia. Thought it might be of interest to others – and thanks to  Port Augusta Public Library for the wifi.

We visited the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden while in Port Augusta to see their comprehensive collection of Eremopholia. It was pleasing to see that they include some indigenous names on the signs for some of the Eremophila on display. Will upload some pics later as i just exceeded my daily quota.)

For me the profound poetry of this country – life’s true poetry – is to be found in First Peoples Dreaming stories.

Keeping in mind my central problem raised in Part One  – what is the next step – I was surprised to find myself on an imaginary trip to Central Australia (now a real trip!)

When I got home from my walk in the Royal National Park I was looking for a book about local Koori stories and flowers when I came across a heavy duty anthropological book I have had for a long time and not read. I thought it was about time I justified to myself buying it and opened it to have a read.

“The Native Tribes of Central Australia” by Spencer and Gillen opened at a page which referred to a red flowering plant from Central Australia and its significance to Arrernte people. And away we go …

In their account of an important Arrernte (Aranda) initiation ceremony, Spencer and Gillen noted the words of an important fire song “Atnylinga etunja illa althara wuntama”  which is repeated “… over and over again.” (S&G 1899 – 1969:238).

Spencer and Gillen mention “Atnylinga is the red flower of a species of Eremophila, which, in the Alcheringa, was made red with much burning.” (Spencer and Gillen 1899 1969:238). This plant plays an important part in the initiation ceremonies which mark passage into male adulthood.

Spencer and Gillen do not, as far as I can see, a record the particular species of Eremophila.

“Eremophila” is (obviously) a non-Arrernte label for a large group of plants which means ‘desert loving’. In true Lévi-Straussian pensée sauvage fashion it has social parallels as well which I do not explore here – except to note that amongst desert loving First Peoples daily life requires the emphasis has to be on the need for collective enterprise rather than individual escape.

Spencer’s earlier involvement in the 1894 Horn expedition to Central Australia – he edited the 4 volumes of the reports, one of which was devoted to plants – would make him well placed to identify Eremophila, even if he does not specify which one of the 180 or so species (Jessop 1981:339)

G.S. Richmond has written a review (1993) of the uses of Eremophila (Myoporaceae) by this country’s First Peoples.  Along with many other uses, Richmond notes:

Eremophila species have played a role in the ceremonial life of Aboriginal people … Of all the species utilized, E. longifolia appears to be of special important for Central Australian Aborigines, and is considered to be the most sacred and mystical of all Central Australian plants (Latz 1982) …”

Richmond mentions, in this E. longifolia context, initiation ceremonies witnessed by Spencer and Gillen.

“The leaves and branches were used in elaborate circumcision rites where small sprigs were placed in headbands and armbands of the novices. Dances were performed … This event was followed by singing for several hours and then the young men allotted for initiation were decorated with twigs and leaves which were placed in their headbands. This material was known as wetta, and would be worn until the end of the ceremony…” (Richmond 1993:104)

Pastor Carl Strehlow, working with Western Arrarnta people at Ntaria – Hermannsburg mission –  at the turn of the previous century also recorded a Dreaming narrative which mentions a Dreaming precedent along these lines. ‘47.  Die tnurungata [Larven]-Manner’ (1907:216-218).

In that story, the full details of which may be restricted to initiated men, we learn that these Dreaming ancestors placed tnurunga-Zwieige (twigs?) in their Gurtel (waistbelts) Armbander (armbands) and Haar (hair) before they transformed into sacred objects at Emily Gap (Anthwerrke) just outside of the present town of Alice Springs – Mparntwe.

Carl Strehlow footnotes (5) that ‘tnurungatja, eine gross, gelbe Larvenart, die sich an tnurunga-Buschen findet’.

‘tnurungatja is a large species of larvae found on tnurunga bushes’ (Google Translate)

Chewings, who made an English translation which was never published, translates ‘Larven’ as ‘grub’ but I feel this does not do just to the original, especially as we explore both the amazing transformational characteristics of larvae and their significance in First Peoples lives. (What term did Spencer and Gillen use?) More on this soon.

We learn, from the Introductory Dictionary of Western Arrernte (Gavin Breen and E Rubuntja, G Armstrong 2000:56 IAD Press):

(copy missing?)

Carl Strehlow’s ‘tnurungatja’ is clearly ‘tnwerrenge’ and ‘tnurungatja’ is clearly ‘tnwerrengatye’ in this more recent orthography.

Carl Strehlow mentions they came from Ulaterka – (He gives Ula = forehead and terka = green = green forehead) which lies westerly from Mount Sonder (Mt Ziel in one account). Urlatherrke.

The Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary (Henderson and Dodson 1994 IAD Press) says,

  1. under ‘forehead’ ‘urle’ and note “’Traditionally, it can be offensive to men for a woman to talk directly about a man’s forehead.” (page 596)
  2. and, to account for the difference between yellow and green caterpillars,  under ‘green’: “a colour that includes green and some shades of yellow and blue …. Atherrke ‘ (page 686 – main entry p 302). It also refers to grass, and, as merne atherrke (b) ‘edible leaf parts of plants; leaf vegetables such as spinach and lettuce.’.

Caterpillars are great examples of creatures which, firstly, devote one stage of their life to this activity – leaf eaters par excellence with great appetites – and, secondly, undergo a remarkable transformation in which their first larval body is converted to nutrients for a second set of genes – and flight!

Working with ‘concrete logic’ (a la Levi-Strauss) they are not only ripe for eating but also ripe for thinking. First Peoples make great use of empirical qualities to represent abstract concepts.

These ‘grubs’ and caterpillars play a highly significant role in the Dreaming dimensions of landscape and in the social and ceremonial life of Arrernte people in the Alice Springs- Mparntwe area. It will be good to draw this out a bit later – maybe when we are Mparntwe.

In Aranda Traditions (1947, reprint 1968) TGH Strehlow provides:

“tnuruŋa (Eremophila species, a shrub or tree whose leaves and branches find extensive ceremonial use. … Small twigs are stuck under the headbands and armbands of novices …”

Meggitt recorded how, during a Warlpiri initiation ceremony:

“During the singing, the guardian (his brother-in-law) frequently brushes the boy’s head with the leaves of Eremophila longifolia, the badge of the novice among the Warlpiri. This action closes the lad’s mind to everything but the songs, the “strength” (but not the meaning) of which he now absorbs.” (Meggitt 1962 reprint 1984  287)

And here we run into something of a full stop since the songs which the young man will learn contain some of the metaphors which are required for connecting Being to Cosmos.

We ourselves are not involved in this initiation process, and lack both the language, culture and knowledge of country which are presumed by the initiation practices.

 But more important than a limitation on our knowing is the realization that, for that young man (and all like him), these matters inform the core of his Being. He is born into a cosmos where he is a living reincarnation of these Dreaming forebears – and this a part of a much larger configuration of similarly signified Beings.

Core identity – Being is signified by the same process in which country is signified – share a common fate.

These Dreaming dimensions of life are denied by modern cultural notions of ‘reality’.

Can the naming conventions of modern botany ever assist us to connect to our surroundings in such a high transcendental way? We may need poets as well, Professor.

In contrast to the very high significance placed upon it by First Peoples, it is curious that, in reading European accounts of the flora of Central Australia, Eremophila longifolia does not rate much of a mention. Emu Bush and Poverty Bush is sometimes mentioned, with those terms seemingly used in a generic sense as well.

An overview of historical process by which the flora of Central Australia was documented by botanists and explorers etc is covered by J H Willis in Jessop (editor-in-chief).

The focus on what is ‘new to science’ slowly gave way to looking at other aspects of plants, such as their relations to their habitats and, in some cases, their uses by First Peoples. (Willis, in Jessop xvii).

Even the contemporary account “Vegetation of Central Australia” by J S Beard in Jessop concludes with discussion of the effects of soils as viewed from a chemical perspective to account for two major differences to be found in the Australian desert flora.

While this is as it should be, no doubt, the point I am trying to work towards is that there is no real space, in the Western conceptual apparatus at work in the field of botany, for consideration of indigenous ‘metaphysical’ systems of signification of these ‘same’ plants.

Despite the fact that the scientific familiarity with the flora of Central Australia may span, say, over 150 years or so, it is carried out within a narrow range of expert opinions of what is to count as being worthy of investigation and what is to be deemed significant within that ‘enclosed’ community of interest.

The fact that First Peoples in these areas had, at least, thousands of years of intimate contact and a profound knowledge of these ‘same’ plants was not a key feature of the process of scientific documentation.

The possibility that some plants might be ‘sacred’ and ‘mystical’ (to use that form of words) had no room in modern scientific enquiry.

To make it socially in the academic world where such botanical matters were of keen interest you had to look to ‘nature’ as defined by Western master narratives.

Clearly, from First Peoples perspectives, ‘nature’ was a lesser means of interpreting experience in contrast to the high culture concerns of life within a cosmic context.

We are dealing with cosmos, not Western notions of ‘nature’. There are no ‘wild’ plants in a fully cultured cosmos. We need a new terminology. This is a cultural challenge for interested conceptual craftworkers. A whole lot more work-play is required, especially in a spirit of cultural partnership with First Peoples.

The ‘red burning’ mentioned in the Arrernte song is, in all probability, connected with events in the ‘Alcheringa’ such comparable to the Warumungu great conflagration Bush-fire which transformed life in the Beginning. [Warumungu Arapunji and Aranda Urapantji are connected].

If this is correct in the Arrernta case, Atnylinga – as opposed to ‘raw’ nature –  is well and truly ‘cooked’.

By an unexpected path, to do with otherwise insignificant plants known as Emu Bush, and Poverty Bush, to the core of a sacred process.

The fact that we have been lead to Arrernte ceremonies is striking to me since, in my view, the practices found in the hard desert country of the Centre have always struck me as those which adopt a sort of spiritual high-ground in contrast to easier ways of life found on the coast. It is as though, living in a harsh environment, people in the Centre specialised in metaphysical practices, the high-quality products of which are exchanged as life-messages with other peoples.

Certainly when you are alive to these matters, Being in the Centre has a transcendental humm and buzz to it. Lacking the appropriate cultural metaphors, we can yearn to connect – but are unable to take the next step.

D.H. Lawrence, who stayed briefly in Thirroul, wrote about this in another context – describing us as being akin to spiritual amputees. I like to think we are more like lizards – who can regrow a shed tail – or like snakes – who can shed their old constricting skin and emerge with vivid new skin fresh to the world again.


Cosmos~flower 1 – Part One




Sometimes, for exercise purposes, i walk back from a shack at Era, in the Royal National Park (South of Sydney) to a train station at Otford. Not just an exercise of the body but a gentle massage of the mind as well.


There is an RNP Coastal track, which is presently being upgraded. But if you come up to the Garawarra cark park there is a good wide (“vehicle/fire trail”) track which goes along the top of an escarpment.

RNP fire trail track.jpg

It runs parallel to the sea – with some spots where you can take a short side track through the bush and take a break while you look out over the sea from on high. Great bit of coastline.


One problem I had been pondering during the last time I did this walk arose from a tweet which, in light of the usual news, I had felt compelled to share with others earlier in the week:


“To the same extent that we treat our home planet Earth as an inert and lifeless ‘thing’ our own Being is numbed, suppressed and denied.”


I have this notion from thinking about First Peoples and animism – that they are truly alive, while modern Western people like myself suffer from a secular flatness of our Being. I sometimes refer to this as ‘the great depression’.


My pondering was – “Yes, but where do we go from here?” No answer had emerged.


I half know the answer is to be found in the metaphors which are built into our means of interpreting experience –  but you can’t just suddenly just reconnect Being with Cosmos in one orgasmic swoosh (Freud discussed something like this in comparing his position with that of Jung). At least, for people like Freud and me, it seems impossible.


During the week I had been lightly researching the notion of ‘existential crisis’. A Wikipedia entry had mentioned that flattened affect was associated with a modern existential crisis.


My earlier readings on what we in the modern West categorise as “animism” alerted me to the difference in how life dances for those who relate to life in an ‘animistic’ way.


It seems to me that, for those we call ‘animist’ their whole Being is alive – not merely their whole brain – in contrast to the condition of those of us (me in particular) in the modern West where we have developed what is truly a ‘flat’ earth means of interpreting experience.


Australia’s First Peoples dance and sing country. Not only that – and this is in contrast with some of the grim non-indigenous ‘cross-cultural’ professionals I have met over the years – First Peoples live with laughter. Anthropologist Robert Tonkinson, writing about Mardudjara people ‘living the Dream in Australia’s deserts’ noted:


“The Mardudjara have a keen sense of humour that pervades their activities, including ritual. There are very few occasions so awe-inspiring or momentous in their religious significance that laughter and joking would be thought out of place.” (Tonkinson 1978:100)


To me this is the best kind of evidence of both healthy mental functioning and the full operation of our frontal lobes at the cutting edge of creation.


It points to a lighter mode of Being. We (casting ourselves as Homo Sapiens) often need to lighten up rather than take things far too seriously. Homo Ludens  – where the sense of play has its place as well – is also on offer..


The walk from Era to Otford takes me a couple of hours. Mainly through heathland with its hard and scratchy plants, on the thin soils and sandstone, some large trees e.g. fantastic shaped Angophoras, and hairy coned Banksias.


view from rock.jpg


As I walk along this track I am frequently aware of my own ignorance regarding my surroundings. I do not know the original names of the plants and animals I come across nor do I have anything much by way of an idea of how these parts of life may have been signified and utilized by the original peoples for this country.


I feel that I am, very much, part of an extensive system of false consciousness. And no amount of scientific study of the plants and animals I seek to relate to is going to connect my part of Being to this part of Cosmos.


The walk is very pleasant in spring with a lot of Native Irises (Patersonia sericea) out in some patches, and flowering plants such as ‘eggs and bacon’ (yellow – Diliwynia retorta) and Gymea lilies (reddish/crimson  – Doryanthes excesla) to mention a few of the striking features.


My dear mother’s name was Iris – meaning the Goddess Rainbow in Ancient Greece. I am the son of a Rainbow.


Native Iris pic at


Down at Era my wife – who, in my view, comes from that country – had been showing our granddaughter, Daphne, some sea anemones in the rock pool at Era.


With my daughter, Fuchsia, we were pondering why there is also a plant called anemone. Was it Latin or Greek? I  looked it up when i came home. Wikipedia says that the sea creature in named after the flower – and the flower:


“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Greek anemōnē means “daughter of the wind”, from ánemos “wind” + feminine patronymic suffix -ōnē.[4] The Metamorphoses of Ovid tells that the plant was created by the goddess Venus when she sprinkled nectar on the blood of her dead lover Adonis. “


Iris, Fuchsia, Daphne – a floral matriline. Daphne has Greek mythic connections. (Google ‘daphne’)


Fuchsia has a very interesting lineage – from German for ‘fox’ – animal species – to human surname ‘Fuchs’ the Doctor who named the flower species ‘Fuchsia’ – to the human first name of my daughter.


Myths all over the world relate to the shapes and colours of plants (and much more).


Due to the shortcomings (or otherwise) of my own school education I prefer the myths to the Latin-like scientific names, and the memorialising of botanists and colonial figures.

Banksia – after Sir Joseph Banks, wealthy English Gentleman.  

Note that the ‘Royal’  was added to ‘National Park’ after a fleeting visit to the Sydney-Illawarra region by the English Queen? It is full of imperial measure forms of names. Governor Game lookout? Just off Sir Bertrum Stephens Drive? Along from Lady Carrington etc etc.

Even the scientific name for the Native Iris – Patersonia sericea –   refers to another minor colonial figure – Paterson was another NSW Governor. Shortly we will consider a connection between another State Governor – LaTrobe – and an indigenous flowering plant.

We  have a very handy plant identification booklet “Burnum Burnum’s Wildthings Around Sydney”.  Most comprehensive in terms of small entries on the many plants you encounter.

Burnum Burnum, you may recall, was the Koori man who planted the Aboriginal flag in land in the United Kingdom. He had an Anglo-Australian name –  Harry Penrith – which he later replaced with Burnum Burnum. (From his great grandfather according to Wikipedia)

This naming business is very much part of a kind of conceptual framework which we take for granted but which may not serve our deeper interests – if we come to find it more like a constraining straight-jacket than an enabling means of relating to the rest of life.

Burnum Burnum’s name is on the booklet, and he provides a brief account (pp8-9) of Aboriginal legends regarding the Waratah and the Gymea lily but there remains a long way to go regarding a full account of the plants – as I shall try to tease out.

These accounts appear similar to those published elsewhere (Rolland Robinson; Michael Organ’s compilation, some of the work of Reed). I need to get a bit more systematic in learning these things, but connecting with country may require more than a book-based academic approach.

For the moment, our Subaru Forester is packed ready to set out to Central Australia in the morning to follow the lead to Eremophila – desert loving plants.

First main camp stop, Lake Mungo – where something of an ancient spirit of this land may be encountered.

Bruce Reyburn

Friday 19 May 2017

Self-learning exercise – google search ‘eremophila’

Mparntwe – Alice Springs sacred sites, urban impacts – ABC Off Track podcast. Ozstudies Pop-Up ed

The audio download on this ABC Off Track program regarding Yeperenye (Caterpillar) Dreaming in Mparntwe – Alice Springs is worth a listen. It is 28 minutes long, so you need to make time to listen.

The local Dreaming landscape was very well known since the work of anthropologists Spencer and Gillen circa 1900, but treated as insignificant by Australian authorities until the 1980s.

Program raises the issues of sacred sites which have been negatively impacted on by the development of the town –  and more.