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”

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”

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.