Bush Medicine

Prostanthera Stratiflora - Striped Mint Bush - Arrwatnurlke  Banner .2

The image shown is a Striped mint-bush Prostanthera striatiflora
The fragrant leaves of Arrwatnurlke are crushed by Arrernte people and the juice used to dry out sores. The leaves are also either burnt to make inhaling smoke or made into a rubbing medicine and used to treat flu symptoms. Arrwatnurlke grows in the rocky hills around Alice Springs in Central Australia.

Bush Medicine is an important subject for many paintings by Aboriginal women.

For many thousands of years, Aboriginal people have known about the healing qualities of plants. The gathering of these plants, their use in traditional medicine, and the performance of ceremonies to ensure their abundance form a strong component of the spiritual responsibilities of Aboriginal women.

The leaves, flowers, bark or seeds of certain plants are harvested in season or as needed. This is often done in groups so that knowledge is passed down from older to younger women.

The plants are ground to a pulp and boiled to extract the resin. The resin is mixed with fat to make ointments. Traditionally, the stomach fat of kangaroos or emus was used, and would keep for months in the harsh conditions of the desert. Today butter or olive oil is sometimes substituted for fat. The medicine may be used to heal wounds, bites, rashes, and as an insect repellent.

Leaves may also be steeped to make an infusion applied topically to wounds to prevent infection. Sometimes a plant is powdered and applied to the chest to heal congestion. Leaves may also be laid across a fire and the smoke inhaled. Bush medicines are used extensively in traditional midwifery.

Native lemon grass, mint, fuchsia (emu bush or eremophila), and Ti tree are common cures for coughs, colds, bites and scratches, and may also prevent infection. Gloria Petyarre tells that she would inhale the leaves from the clematis vine to cure a headache or sometimes add it to liquid and drink it. Another common name for clematis vine is 'headache vine'. These are just a few of hundreds of known remedies.

Aboriginal people also recognise the therapeutic value of many regular food sources and used these in different dosages as tonics or to relieve pain, fever and respiratory problems. They recognised the healing qualities of honey, known to be a natural antibacterial and rich in vitamins. Traditional medics even made a paste from witchetty grubs, a rich source of protein, to rub on the gums of teething babies.

Traditional healers both male and female (sometimes referred to as Ngangkari, bush doctors or medicine men) were held in high esteem. Even today there are designated traditional healers like Patricia Rambler Kemarre or George Ward Tjapaltjarri (often called Doctor George). Since European colonisation, however, much traditional plant knowledge is being lost.

"Bush Medicine Dreaming" paintings are one way to sustain this traditional knowledge. They often depict the leaves of the plants used in medicine with thick brush strokes. Small dots can represent seeds such as native millet or grass seed which are used in medicine and also an important part of the traditional food supply. Paintings depict various parts of the process of collecting, preparing, and using these healing medicines; they also illustrate and maintain the ceremonial responsibilities for their abundance.

Bush medicine ceremonies are exclusive to women and carried out at certain times of the year when seasonal changes or rain might increase the harvest of a particular plant. These sacred ceremonies involve the painting of women's bodies with paint made from ochre, fat, ashes and even the plants themselves. Awelye ceremonies always involve singing and dancing, often at a special site related to that plant. Bush Medicine paintings reflect the body art designs used in these ceremonies.

Plant knowledge forms an important part of Aboriginal culture and reflects the complexity of Aboriginal relationships to land. Painting plays an important part in the cultivation and maintenance of traditional knowledge about bush medicine.

The women artists from the Utopia region celebrate bush medicine in many of their paintings. Gloria Petyarre is one of the most consistently creative artists from this region whose iconic Bush Medicine paintings illustrate her knowledge of the medicinal value of bush leaves. Abie Loy Kemarre depicts the curative properties of the bush leaf that grows in a swamp near some sand hills in her country around Utopia and is used to cure colds, headaches and sores. Anna Petyarre celebrates the healing qualities of yam seeds as eye soothers in her Bush Yam Seeds works.

Today, traditional bush medicine is increasingly acknowledged by botanists, doctors and alternative healers. Many remedies are readily available in Australian supermarkets; the best known are goanna oil, Ti tree oil and eucalyptus oil.


Gloria Petyarre is famous for her beauitful Medicine Leaves, please visit our collection of artworks we have to offer.




Bush Medicine Article Pic Digimarc.
Aboriginal word glossary