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Secrets of the bush

Narelle Muller

4 April 2006

Copyright 2006 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved

With expert knowledge, the rainforest can be a bountiful source of dietary and medicinal secrets, writes Narelle Muller

MARTHA Brim, 32, doesn't always pop to the shops when she needs food, or some medicine from the chemist. Instead, the mother-of-four heads into the rainforest in search of special ingredients for cooking and treating family ailments.

As a child Brim was taught by her elders to identify and collect bush tucker from the rainforests of north Queensland and today, she passes on this knowledge to visitors at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, northwest of Cairns.

"Our unspoilt rainforests contain ancient remedies for a range of diseases, as well as an abundance of fresh produce, all for free," Brim says. "The secret lies in knowing what to look for and how to handle them once you have identified edible exotic fruits, plants, pods, bark and seeds."

The Aboriginal people of the rainforest, the Djabugay, think of the bush as their personal supermarket and pharmacy rolled into one.

"Of course, you could walk right past these riches and never even realise they were there," Brim says. "Skill and caution are required, as mistakes could be fatal."

She says the rainforest contains cures for life-threatening diseases, such as cancer and diabetes and treatments for everyday complaints like diarrhoea and headache.

Brim says her bush-tucker pantry is stocked with provisions which are not only healthier than any processed food but also taste great. "We're using knowledge tens of thousands of years old, handed down through generations. You have to be 100 per cent sure of what you're doing, because many plants are highly toxic until treated."

Like the protein-packed rainforest black bean, which is placed in a porous bag and soaked in a flowing stream for three days to leach its poison. It is then roasted, sliced and pounded to a flour to be used to bake fresh bread and damper.

Cycad nuts, the orange fruit from the plant, are treated in the same way, as is the yellow rainforest walnut. "We needed these ingredients, as floods could cut us off from the rest of the country for months in the wet season, between December and April," Brim says.

"Our ancestors made their discoveries through trial and error. "Many plants would have been tested on small animals like wallabies before they were tried by humans, and that knowledge has been passed on." 

Brim says various methods are used, depending on which part of the plant is needed for a specific purpose. Sometimes fruits are peeled and de-seeded to remove toxins, while others are soaked, grated, boiled or roasted. Anthills, which have a rich magnesium content, are ground to a powder and diluted with water to make a tonic for stomach upset. A treatment for headache involves raiding the nearest green ant nest for eggs, adding water and making a drink.

The same mixture is taken for colds and sore throats, while the wait-a-while plant, maligned by bushwalkers for its thorny spikes, is valued by the Djabugay for its fruit seeds, which are chewed to cure toothache. Brim aims to send her message far and wide, because the Aboriginal population of the past, which used bush tucker to combat obesity, asthma, cancer and diabetes, was much healthier than those we see today. "While we don't advocate novices go wandering into the rainforest and foraging for food they don't understand, we do hope eventually some of the secrets will be useful in helping develop a healthier way of life," Brim says.

Tjapukai is selling some rainforest products including wild berry jams. "My own children think of the bush as one big shopping centre. Of course they eat food from shops too. But I hope to create a balance between ancient and modern practices," she says.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park: www.tjapukai.com.au ; email info@tjapukai.com.au

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