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



If you are, like me, a novice to the study of Botany (and studies in ethnobotany) the following provides some useful background reading regarding Linnaeus:

“Even in 1753 he believed that the number of species of plants in the whole world would hardly reach 10,000; in his whole career he named about 7,700 species of flowering plants.”[9]

Linnaeus developed his classification of the plant kingdom in an attempt to describe and understand the natural world as a reflection of the logic of God‘s creation.[10]His sexual system, where species with the same number of stamens were treated in the same group, was convenient but in his view artificial.[10] Linnaeus believed in God‘s creation, and that there were no deeper relationships to be expressed. He is frequently quoted to have said: “God created, Linnaeus organized” (Latin: Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit).[11] The classification of animals was more natural. For instance, humans were for the first time placed together with other primates, as Anthropomorpha.”

“Linnaeus’s trivial names introduced an important new idea, namely that the function of a name could simply be to give a species a unique label. This meant that the name no longer need be descriptive; for example both parts could be derived from the names of people. Thus Gerard’s phalangium ephemerum virginianum became Tradescantia virginiana, where the genus name honoured John Tradescant the Younger,[note 1] an English botanist and gardener.[10] A bird in the parrot family was named Psittacus alexandri, meaning “Alexander’s parrot”, after Alexander the Great whose armies introduced eastern parakeets to Greece.[11] Linnaeus’s trivial names were much easier to remember and use than the parallel polynomial names and eventually replaced them.[2]

For more on Macrozamia

And the Macinnis reference – Hopper, S. D. (2003), Southwestern Australia, Cinderella of the World’s Temperate Floristic Regions 1. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 20: 101-126. doi:10.1111/1467-8748.00379

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