Flora in the Top End

cheeky yam.jpg

It is very hard for an Australian English dictionary to cover every aspect of life in a country as big as Australia, so I was not surprised, on a recent trip to Arnhem Land and Darwin, to find that there were plants that were – shock, horror! – not in the dictionary.

At first I thought it was a case of names drifting up from down south and being applied to different trees. The kurrajong, for example, is a big tree along the east coast of Australia, so that, at first glance, the red kurrajong of the Top End, a slender, spindly tree stripped of leaves with one or two red flowers, seemed to bear no relation to it.  As it turns out, they both belong to the genus Brachychiton and they both lose their leaves before flowering. The northern one is a different species but it is related.

I also encountered a turpentine tree, which is entirely unrelated to the east coast tree, and a turpentine bush, which is common in inland Australia.  All three get their common name from the aromatic or flammable resin or leaves.

Not that the dictionary aims to be a botany textbook but it does try to include plants which are significant for one reason or another, usually either because they are edible or poisonous or have a spectacular flower that brings it to the attention of the community. In trying to assess how significant a plant is, it is important to find it mentioned in a few texts designed for the general public. In this case initially the information came from my guide at Mt Borradaile in Arnhem Land, backed up by a book on the local flora. But the surprise testimony came from the bark paintings on show in the Darwin Art Gallery. These were produced by an Aboriginal artist, Mulkun Wirrpanda, who set out to record the plants that she had been taught to gather, cook, and eat when she was a child. The younger generation had forgotten their bush tucker with rather negative consequences so she wanted to make sure that they could recognise the plants to use if ever they returned to a traditional way of life. 

I found that as I walked into the room I could identify in the first instance a distinctive style of bark paintings. Once I got my eye in, I could see how clearly the different plants were identified.  This was botanical documentation as well as art.

So when the cheeky yam turned up in both Wirrpanda’s work and the Mt Borradaile record I felt confident that it should be in the dictionary. The word cheeky in this instance has the Aboriginal English meaning of ‘poisonous’, the yam being poisonous unless it is prepared in a certain way. Wirrpanda commented that it is a symbol of Aboriginal good governance. If everyone follows the correct path in behaving towards each other, then good things will flow, but if people neglect or ignore the right way of doing things then the outcome will be very bad. So this plant has a cultural significance over and above its use as food.

As I suspected, the habit of lexicography sticks with me.  It is an odd lens through which to view the world but it adds a layer of meaning to everything I see.


environmentSue ButlerComment