One of Australia's greatest treasures is her flora – a staggering 24,000 species of native plants have been identified compared to England's 1700 native plants.
An Aboriginal garden
Australia's native plants vary across the many different natural environments of the country. In the tropical regions of north Queensland, Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys there are many native fruit trees, such as figs and green plums. Where water is scarce in central Australia, the plants are spread thinly over the land and Aborigines rely on fruits such as bush tomatoes and quandong or native peach. While fruits are seasonal, roots can usually be dug up all the year round. This regular digging-over of the soil meant that the whole country was, in a way, an Aboriginal garden.
Plants were used for many other things besides food. Medicines also came from plants. Native mints (Mentha spp.) were remedies for coughs and colds, and the gum from gum-trees, which is rich in tannin, was used for burns.
Botanical interest and ignorance
Sydney Parkinson (1759-68), Banksia. Image courtesy of National History Museum, London.
William Dampier first introduced Europeans to Australian plants in 1703 in his book A voyage to New Holland which presented illustrations of specimens from the Western Australian bush.
On Captain Cook's journey Endeavour voyage in 1770, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected over 30,000 botanical specimens and Sydney Parkinson made 674 drawings on the voyage. This material was not published for another hundred years.
On the other hand, French naturalists and scientists, such as Labillardiere, extensively promoted Australian plants with the publication of seven volumes. Napoleon's wife Josephine patronised botanists and the growing of Australian plants – growing over 100 Australian plants including grevilleas, banksias, eucalypts and casuarinas at Malmaison, outside Paris.
The clearing of Australian native plants during the last 200 years has markedly changed the Australian countryside. Robin Boyd in his book, The Australian Ugliness (1960) wrote that many people regarded even eucalypts and acacias as 'primitive landscape and elements – unfamiliar, strangely primeval – which must be eradicated from the home environment'. Since the 1990s, Landcare programs and Greening Australia have begun to conserve flora and combat problems, such as soil erosion and salination, which have occurred as a result of large scale clearing.
Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha), the floral emblem of Australia. Image courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
Acacia is a genus of around 1200 species; 954 are currently recognised as occurring in Australia – from coastal zones and mountains to the dry inland. Collectively the Australian species are known as 'wattles'.
One of them, golden wattle, Acacia pycnantha, was first collected by the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, Thomas Mitchell, in 1836.
As Australians became more patriotic towards the end of the 1800s, they began to appreciate Australian native plants more, and started a search for a floral symbol of the country. In 1912, the wattle was incorporated into the design of the Australian Coat of Arms.
In Spring, beginning in September in Australia, the golden wattle comes into flower with large fluffy, yellow, sweet smelling flower heads. Each flower head is a bunch of many tiny flowers.
Mountain ash (eucalyptus regnans) - the second tallest tree in the world. Image courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
Gum trees (eucalypts) are a vital part of the Australian natural environment. The only major environment where eucalypts are absent is rainforest. There are about 12 species which occur naturally outside of Australia but around 700 are native to Australia. Eucalypts serve as shelter for many species of native Australian animals and birds. A few varieties of gum leaves are the only food eaten by koalas.
Since early settlement, eucalypts have been a vital source of timber and firewood for Australians and they have been a key part of the hardwood timber industry. Soldiers returning by ship from the First and Second World Wars were able to smell the aroma of the eucalypt before land was visible on the horizon. A common use for eucalypts is eucalyptus oil.
The genus Grevillea is probably the most popular and widely cultivated of all of Australia's plant families. The plants occur in numerous shapes and sizes and the colourful flowers, in many cases, attract birds. Grevillea is a member of the Protea family (Proteaceae) and its close relatives include Banksia, Hakea, Dryandra, Isopogon and Telopea (the waratah).
Melaleuca is a genus of around 170 species in the Myrtle family (Myrtaceae). Melaleucas are commonly known as 'paperbarks' in the tree forms and 'honey myrtles' in the smaller form as well as 'tea trees' . Melaleucas are often found along watercourses or along the edges of swamps. M. alternifolia is commonly used in the production of tea tree oil , an ingredient in many shampoos, antiseptic creams and soaps.
Eremophila is a genus of 214 species which are commonly called 'emu bushes' found only in Australia. They are generally plants of semi-arid to arid regions The plants produce fleshy fruits which are often eaten by birds and animals. The foliage of some species is toxic and stock poisonings have occurred although some other species are useful as fodder plants.
A common use of emu bush is 'emu oil' – as a skin tonic . Emu bush was important to the Adnyamathanha people of the northern Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Rosemary Pedler (1994) noted it's use for medicinal purposes.
The bark of trunks was scraped off, reduced to ash and then mixed with emu oil. This preparation was then used for all manner of skin complaints with excellent results, according to several people in the group. This is still being used today.
Kangaroo paws are from the Haemodoraceae family, a family of herb like plants related to the lilies (Amaryllidaceae), comprising over 100 species. In general, the plants are small, clumping plants with strappy leaves reaching about one metre wide and high. Flowers have little or no fragrance. Kangaroo paw flowers are long, narrow and tubular-shaped, resembling the paw of a kangaroo, which are ideally designed for low-beaked birds.
Australian floral emblems
Vase Decoration, by Mr L. H. Howie, a student at the School of Art and Crafts, Adelaide, SA. R.T. Baker (1915) The Australian Flora in Applied Art, Part 1, The Waratah, Sydney. Image courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
Inspiration from Australian flowers has characterised the development of unique motifs in the visual arts in Australia. In 1915, R T Baker, a passionate advocate of the Waratah and other local flora as a motif in art, craft and industry wrote:
The entire plant (waratah) lends itself to such a boldness of artistic ideas in all branches of Applied Art that it has few compeers amongst the representatives of the whole floral world...
Artists like Margaret Preston used the bold shape of the Waratah in her hand-coloured woodcut prints and this contributed to recognition of native flowers and plants as being part of Australia's cultural identity.
Australian flora – Australian floral emblems
- Australian National Botanic Gardens, Floral Emblems of Australia
Australian plants information
- Guide to Australian Plants
- Australian Native Plants Society
- Australian National Botanic Gardens
- Australian Government Department of the Environment, Flora of Australia Online
- Australian National Botanic Gardens, About eucalypts
- Australian National Botanic Gardens, Wattles
Early botanical interests
- National Museum of Australia, Banks Florilegium collection – set of 500 engravings, hand coloured, printed for the first time 1980–90
- The papers of Sir Joseph Banks
- National Gallery of Victoria, Malmaison: Josephine's Garden – The promotion of Australian plants by Josephine and Napoleon.
Australian flora – resources for teachers
Last updated: 29th June 2015
Creators: Kathryn Wells