Skip to content

Say My Name – Australian Native Botanicals

June 8, 2020

Life unfolds in layers,  a therapist once told me it was like peeling an onion. She left it at that but I then went home and peeled an onion realising that there are far more layers to those things than it appears at first glance and, more importantly, if you keep on peeling you eventually get to the heart of it – or nothing – either/ both are significant and gave me the ‘aha’ moments that I’m sure the therapist intended.

After moving to this country from England just over 16 years ago now I’ve found the same to be true of the bush.  In the first few years it was just greys, browns, muted greens and yellows under an azure blue sky that never seemed (to my English sensibilities) to give us rain.  Over time these blocks of colour which at times (I must admit) looked totally dead to me, have sprang to life, sometimes so much so that even in the middle of the scorched earth droughts that we are more frequently having here I am able to see opportunity and hope – well, I have to admit that sometimes that does take some doing.  In any case, the long and the short of it is, the more I’ve paid attention,  invested in this land, watched it and been interested in it, the more it has opened up to me.

I’m not good at remembering the names of things or people to be honest. I’m often quite distracted and somewhat ‘away with the fairies’ when details that I must feel are somewhat less important a use for my brain capacity are offered up.  Plant and Tree names also fall into that category and as such I have to look everything up a thousand times, write it onto my photos and in my journals before I even stand half a chance of internalising it and keeping that data attached to its subject.   I had been wondering why this was when I stumbled across a plant in my garden – a weed really but something I’m quite fond of – Shepherds Purse:

Apparently this is Capsella Bursa- Pastoris, a plant belonging to the mustard family (Brassicaceae).  This plant grows well in the UK and as a child I used to collect the little heart shaped ‘purses’ and try to figure out (using my imagination) why and how shepherds used them as purses.  I can’t remember ever coming up with a logical reason so ended up believing them to be fairy purses instead…

If you would like to hear more about the English Folklore remedy side of this plant this link is helpful.

Anyway, the moral of this story (for me) is that it didn’t really matter to me what this did, what it was (botanically) or what value it had (outside of my head), I’d formed an attachment to this that meant I would never, ever forget it and would always spot it when it was within my presence).  How would I with my now part logical and task-orientated, part ‘away with the fairies’ brain form similar life-long attachments in this new country where I have to make up my own names and stories?  How indeed…

Say My Name.

I realised later on that I didn’t make up the name ‘Shepherd’s Purse’ I’d inherited it from my mother just like she had and so on and so forth.  The name I know this plant by has history and culture, my culture attached to it and while I have never (until this point) looked any further into that side, I had an unspoken understanding that it was there and that it was bigger than I was, that I could tap into it and un-peel another layer of this story whenever I was ready.

Names unlock stories.

When it comes to Australian Native Botanicals I’ve found myself buying botany books, checking LUCIDCENTRAL or the EUCLID database for clues (Eucalyptus Identification Key) while cross referencing back to the common names like ‘blue gum’ or ‘green hood’ or ‘spear grass’ etc.   As a cosmetic chemist I could be forgiven for thinking that these are the only names that matter – damn, I could even go so broad as to group a whole family of essential oils under the convenient banner of ‘Eucalyptus’ and get away with it but I don’t want to do that, it doesn’t fire my imagination or open up new layers for me.  I sometimes think that the world has let its layers grow thick and old, that the layers that once could be peeled away with a careful fingernail now need a bulldozer to dislodge.  Losing the nuance, the detail, the connection makes for a harder, duller and less exciting world and that’s why I’m back to the names again but this time it’s not the fancy names, its the other stuff.

A little on the fancy latin names.

For me, identifying as white is identifying with being ‘white washed’ or culturally detached. I see that most clearly in botany with the use of Latin names.  I’m not from Italy, my bones never came from there.  Even if they did, my story didn’t start and end with the Roman empire so why wholeheartedly adopt it?  Clearly there are reasons why Latin is littered through ‘our’ culture, I couldn’t have got this far as a scientist without sucking big chunks of it up and sure, it’s useful but it isn’t all there is, it isn’t even the half of it and (as I’m finding out more and more) it is often the case that the eyes that first categorised nature using this whitewashed language didn’t ‘see’ the whole picture and as such, have disregarded part of its story. As a very short aside here I’ll mention ‘microbiome’.  Not at all a tangent I want to explore in this blog post but relevant nonetheless – that we can describe the skin without thinking of the microbes that are not us but that help us thrive.

Aboriginal Land, Aboriginal Names.

There isn’t one Aboriginal language, there are many.  Languages attached to each of the 500 or more nations that Australia was before becoming what it is today.  Finding the appropriate Aboriginal name for a particular plant is not an easy task as a plant can grow across many nations and have many names, a large proportion of which are not written down or recorded in a western way (because these are oral traditions based on stories).  This fact has made it challenging for Aboriginal elders and custodians to gain recognition for the body of evidence behind the therapeutic qualities of their plants.  Historically it has been much easier to gain TGA listings, develop international markets and collate bodies of evidence when using ‘white words’ – Latin names and ‘white’ processes – scientific analysis.  As a scientist I see a value in the process in which I’ve been trained and naturally adopt in my own investigations, however, one doesn’t do everything scientifically just because you can – eating, drinking, loving, art making etc require a little more than that.  On that theme it has also been easier to start trends within the cosmetic market when using ‘White’ common names – Kakadu Plum vs Gubinge or Murunga? I think that should stop now.

I am concerned at the growing level of detachment that’s crept into Australian Native Bushfood use, indeed it isn’t even the case that brands wanting Australian Native Ingredients care if they are grown here and many aren’t.   Captain Cook brought Joseph Banks, a botanist with him and from that moment the secrets and natural world intellectual property of Australian plants were exported all over the world without a glance back at their bigger history or cultural significance.  This has, of course, been the case the world over. It’s part of the ‘white wash’ narrative of our history but we don’t have to continue that into the here and now or future.  We do have a choice about what we do next.

Re-connecting plant with place, seed with story.

The first steps towards knowing the name of a botanical you have or wish to get to know/ use in your cosmetic is to work out where it is from/ on whose nation does it grow?  I live on Dharug land when I’m in the Blue Mountains and the language around here is either Dharug or Gundungurra. It’s Wiradjuri country that I live on when out near Wyangala Dam in the Central West, NSW.  So for me I have to look to two or even three languages for names – already harder than just going ‘what’s the latin name’ but worth it.   From my limited work with Aboriginal women who are still actively connected to country the value of keeping these ‘real’ names alive is immense and the pain of reducing them to their ‘white’ names is unbearable.  That said, sometimes it is inevitable that this happens given the history of Australia and where no local name is known we can at least leave some space for it to sit in when it is ready, when that layer is peeled.

Becoming aware of Aboriginal Australia and investing time in re-connecting plants to place, seed to story in a way that is respectful and humble is something I feel we should all do.  Sure those of us who are used to just jumping in and giving it a go, ego’s boosted by our whiteness and ‘oh she’ll be right’ attitudes may get it wrong sometimes but if we at least try, if we stay open to learning, if we open ourselves up to the possibility of this then we can’t go far wrong.  Hopefully, over time we can all encourage those that still hold the language of the plants we enjoy to share some of their stories with us, either  in language or using ‘white speak’ as a medium.  That would be amazing as one can only truly broaden the narrative if we let everybody tell their own stories.

For my part I’m now combining the common, botanical (Latin) and Wiradjuri or Darug names on my plant species I distill and extract from and will be investigating how I can connect with the people who know these names best to help tell their story either on this blog or on a platform of their choice.

Quick Summary take-home tips.

  • Plant Names =  place + plant (botanical name/ species) = Appropriate Aboriginal name.
  • Cultural use = there isn’t one, there are many so try not to refer to ‘traditional use’ of a plant as a catch-all, go further and see how the people you sourced it from used the plant.
  • Supply Chain = Check that what you are buying is Australian Grown, further check if it was grown and supplied by an Aboriginal owned business, few are)
  • Fair Trade =  Australia doesn’t necessarily have a fair trade system for its Native Australian Botanical supply chains but be aware that those who wild harvest the plants as part of their traditional practice may not be fully briefed on the true value of what they are doing and what happens up the supply chain.  Only the individual nations Elders can speak to that and that data isn’t always available.
  • Value your resources = Try not to reduce Australian botanical ingredients to just ‘fluff and bubbles’ let your product be an access point for a deeper, more connected relationship to country.

Eucalyptus Blue Gum – Eucalyptus Deanei.  The Dharug word for Eucalyptus/ Gum Tree is Yarra. The Gundungurra people call Eucalyptus trees Yerradhang.

A good Dharug word learning website is this.

The story goes that the blue mountains are that way because of the evaporation from the gum trees.  As you can see, the oil from the gum tree that grows in my garden does confirm that story to be true.  It’s just a shame that the oil sold in the mountains is not this species so you can’t come here and take this home with you, you just have to keep coming back 🙂

NB:  Interestingly enough after writing this I have spent the day searching for the correct names for a number of essential oils I’m working with.  In doing so I found this blog post.  Looks like I’m not the only one with this idea- they even got there first 🙂





5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2020 9:57 pm

    Thank you!

  2. Mary Johnson permalink
    June 9, 2020 12:35 am

    As always, another great post. Thank you!

  3. Ennia permalink
    June 19, 2020 4:53 pm

    Excellent post Amanda! Love your work. Ennia

  4. June 21, 2020 10:35 am

    Wow. As a Nigerian who is enraptured by the untapped glory of our agriculture, I am so moved to have come upon your post. I actually visited Australia last year And spent time with a Kiwi transplant and a girl who was half-indigenous. There was a certain camp or compound she grew up on with other youth who were of indigenous descent and were having life issues. Besides my two friends, no one else I encountered felt comfortable speaking about this beautiful, long-abused people group. It made me wonder how many people were investing in revitalizing what was lost. I am so so thankful I found this blog. I look forward to your posts and discoveries as you press on.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 23, 2020 7:41 am

      Thank you so much for your kind comment and glad you enjoyed the read. I’ve always been curious at how few stories we tell about the world and how unchallenged the dominant narrative is. It’s time to shine our light more broadly and bring baxk some colour, detail and richness into our lives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: