The Bush Tucker Survival Guide - Bush Tucker Plant Food

The Bush Tucker Survival Guide

by Gemma White

This page is taken from a booklet written by Gemma White in 2008 on Australian bush tucker survival foods that are found in the Mitchell Park (Cattai) region of sydney. This regoin is typical of much of the Sydney region and much of Southeast Australia. Used with permission from the author.

See also: Bush Tucker Plant Foods (a web based field guide with pictures).

NEW: Australian Bush Food Plant Quiz (Bush Tucker and Edible Weeds).

On This Page

Bush Tucker Warning
How to Use this Survival Guide
Chapter 1 - Bush Tucker Plants
Chapter 2 - Bush Medicinal Plants
Chapter 3 - Bush Survival


Aboriginal people have occupied the Australian continent for at least forty thousand years, and over this time they have found ways of surviving that reveal an extensive and detailed knowledge of the environment (Kohen & Downing, 1992). Their understanding of native plants goes far beyond just knowing what is edible. They used plants for healing and medicine, and for weapons and tools (Brand-Miller, & Holt, 1998). They understood the changes of the seasons and the life cycles of animals and plants, and how these processes effected their own survival (Hiddins, 2001). However, current knowledge of Aboriginal diet and herbal medicine is quite limited, since the Aboriginal lifestyle was obliterated long before it could be recorded (Low, 1988).

The Australian bush contains a bounty of wild edible plant species that runs into the thousands, ranging from starchy seeds and tangy fruits to mushrooms, tubers, leaves and seaweeds. However, knowing how to identify edible plants is not easy. The knowledge Aboriginal people have about which plants are edible, which plants are poisonous, and which plants are poisonous but can be prepared in certain ways that make then safe to eat would have been acquired over generations (6,000 years) of trial and error (Hiddins, 2001; Smith&Smith,1999).

To the Aborigines, plant foods supplied up to 80% of their diet in desert regions, and as little as 40% in coastal areas, where shellfish, fish and game were abundant (Low, 1988). Diets and food preparation techniques varied from one region to another and also from one tribe to another. Local custom and belief often effected what was hunted and gathered (i.e. would not eat totemic animals).

It has been suggested that Aborigines were originally a relatively healthy people before the arrival of Europeans (brought infectious diseases) and thus needed little medication (Cribb & Cribb, 1981). Occasional digestive upsets (causing diarrhoea), fevers, toothaches, xand sores, colds, rheumatism and wounds were all adequately treated with a large variety of herbal remedies (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001). Most bush medicines were applied, as rubs or poultices; or inhaled, for example by using crushed aromatic leaves (Hiddins, 2001).

Despite the vast size of the Australian continent, it is quite difficult to become seriously lost in the bush. Most coastlines, roads and watercourses will eventually lead to civilization. If a major mishap was to occur, it’s more important to have water, shelter and to be positioned where help will arrive, than to find food (Low, 1988). People can survive many weeks without food.

Mitchell Park is located east of the Hawkesbury River and north of Pitt Town between Broad Water Swamp and Longneck Lagoon. Mitchell Park is situated on the edge of the Hawkesbury Valley and as a result has a very unique combination of vegetation communities. Alluvial/Flood plain vegetation is found along the edge of the creek on the northern border of the park (narrow band of vegetation). Hawkesbury sandstone derived open woodland forms the bulk of the park, as Cumberland plain derived tall open forest dominates the area between the closed forest and woodland (Kohen, 2008).

Mitchell Park was originally part of the territory of the Cattai Clan (Darug people), however, due to their quick demise after European settlement in the area there is sadly very little information remaining on how they utilised their local area (Pullen, 2003). Today the territory of the Cattai clan is a part of Cattai National Park with a field study centre that is administered by the University of Western Sydney (Kohen, 2008).

Bush Tucker Warning Warning - Bush Tucker Plant Foods

  • This book is only a guide, if you are in doubt about the identity of a plant leave it alone.

  • Many species are difficult to identify

  • Some plants are highly toxic, some are deadly.

  • It is not recommended that you make any bush medicines that need to be swallowed, although rubs, poultices and medicines that can be inhaled should be fairly safe.

  • Plants are protected within National parks and you cannot pick fruits or flowers or otherwise interfere with plants.

  • When travelling through Aboriginal land, remember permission is required before fishing or gathering.

Warning - Edible Weeds WARNING: Never eat plants that are growing in an area where they may have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides (weed killers), or where the water supply to the area could be polluted, such as from urban or industrial run-off. Never eat any part of any wild growing plant unless you are certain you can identify it. Being certain means you have developed a maturity of skill in identifying plants. It does not mean you are pretty sure it looks just like "that plant you saw once on some website".

How To Use This Survival Guide

Plants are divided up into colour coded categories to help make them easier to locate.

GRASS a plant like, or similar to, grass

SHRUB plant, usually less than 4-5 meters, without a tree-like trunk

TREE a woody plant, usually with a main trunk

VINE a climbing or sprawling plant

Chapter 1 — Bush Tucker Plants

Most plants are toxic and indigestible to humans (Hiddins, 2001). Food plants are an exception to this and fall into one of three categories: they may be plant parts that are designed to be eaten (nectars and fruits); or parts that are unprotected by toxins or fibres (most tubes and small seeds); or they may have chemical defences that can be removed by cooking or teaching (many large tubers and seeds) (Low, 1988). The following food plants are common in the Mitchell park area.



Description: Commonly found growing on the edges of lagoons and waterways. It is distinguished by its long seeding flower spike and strap-like green leaves (1-2m tall).

Uses: Bulrush starch was once a staple food of Aborigines, the outer rind was peeled off the underground stem and layed before the fire, the fibres were then twisted to loosen out the starch (Low, 1988). The soft white starch of the young shoot can also be eaten raw and the left over fibres can be spun into tough string. The immature flower stalk can be woven into mats.


BUNGWALL FERN (Blenchnum indicum)


Description: Tall and coarse fern found in low lying swamps, identified by its large size, serrated leaf margins, and long black-skinned rhizomes packed with slimy white starch.

Uses: Rhizomes were dug out with a sharpened stick, dried in the sun for a short time and roasted before eating (Low, 1988). This was an easily gathered staple for Aborigines when the long rhizomes were trailing freely in water. The very bland starch could be eaten raw.

PINK FINGERS ORCHID (Caladenia Carnea)


Description: small orchids, with narrow linear, sparsely hairy leaves and wiry and sparsely hairy stems (up to 25cm tall) bearing up to 3 flowers (Waratah, 2006). Flowers have a slight pink colour with red stripes on its labellum.

Uses: Tubers can be eaten raw, taste watery/ sweetish (picture shows tubers left and flowers right).




Description: Long, very tough grass-like leaves that are pale or dark green (sometimes with serrated margins). Berries are blue or purplish (0.5-1.5cm across), with pale spongy pulp containing shiny black seeds. The small flowers are lilac, purple or blue, with six petals and a black or yellow centre (Low,1988).

Uses: Aborigines used the tough leaves to weave dillies and baskets, and ate the small tasty berries in small amounts.

NATIVE CHERRY (Exocarpos Cupressiformis)


Description: A shrub or Small tree with a dense crown of drooping leafless stems, yellowish-green in colour. Tiny greenish flowers are followed by a hard seed attached to the outside of a succulent red fruit (4-6mm long) that ripens in summer and autumn.

Uses: Fruits can be eaten though taste slightly astringent (Low, 1988).


GEEBUNG (Persoonia)


Three types of Geebung grow in the Mitchell park region: the Broad Leaved Geebung (Persoonia levis), the Narrow – leaved Geebung (Persoonia linearis) and the Pine-leaved Geebung (Persoonia pinnifolia).

Description: A spreading shrub that can be open or bushy (1-5m high), with dark, flaky, papery bark. The leaves vary enormously between species; the Broad-leaved Geebungs has bright green, broad, sickle-shaped, thick, leathery leaves. The narrow-leaved Geebungs leaves are crowded, fine, soft and light green (like pine needles). The flowers of all species are yellow with four slender, arched petals, and the fruits are always round or egg shaped, with a stalk-like style at the tip, and sticky flesh surrounding a single large stone. The fruits ripen only after falling to the ground, when they are pale green to bronze-purple and soft.

Uses: A popular food to Aboriginals, the sweet pulp from the fruit can be nibbled as a snack, although it is fibrous, sticks fast to the large stone, and tastes like sweet cotton wool (high in vitamin C) (Low, 1988).


BRACKEN FERN (Pteridium esculentum)


Description: Grows 0.7-1.5m tall/ Fronds are dark green, glossy and hard, on stiff stalks joined to hairy rhizomes that contain slimy white starch.

Uses: Bracken starch was an important food to Aboriginals; the roasted rhizomes were staple foods that could be eaten in huge quantities. The young undeveloped fronds or fiddle heads must be boiled prior to eating (asparagus-like taste) but should only be eaten as emergency foods (Hiddins, 2001). The fiddles are inclined to taste bitter, and as the fronds are known to contain toxins; they should not be eaten in large quantities.

WILD PARSNIP (Trachymene incisa)


Description: This inconspicuous plant grows as a colony in the grassy understorey. It produces white flower heads on long wiry stems in summer, with lace like leaves (2-4cm wide) and deeply divided. The taproot resembles a small parsnip (Low, 1988).

Uses: It is one of Australia’s tastiest wild foods, the thick juicy taproots are fragrant and sweet and can be eaten raw or cooked.


WATTLES (Acacia sp.)


Description: Small trees or shrubs with yellowish fluffy flowers and flattened or cylindrical, been like pods (picture shows ripe seeds). Leaves can be sickle-shaped or spine-tipped and are usually slender.

Uses: Acacia seeds were very important foods to Aborigines; they are extremely nutritious, yielding protein levels of 18-25%, and sometimes high levels of fat (Low, 1988). Green seeds were roasted in their pods on the fire and then eaten like peas (taste bitter when raw). Ripe seeds were either ground, moistened and roasted as damper, or were roasted first and then ground into a paste (tasting like peanut paste). Aborigines ate the gums oozing from the trunks and branches of many kinds of Wattles. Only pale coloured gums were eaten (sucked like a lolly); the darker gums are too astringent. Aborigines often notched trees to enhance the flow of gum.




Description: Tree generally 3-6m in height. Fruits can be pink, white or purplish in colour, 8-20mm in diameter, with a characteristic depressed disk at the Tip (ripen from April-August). Leaves are slender or broad (2-10cm long), and sometimes with a tapered tip.

Uses: Lilly Pilly fruits are widely eaten by Aborigines though they are aromatic, drying and not very palatable (Smith & Smith, 1999).


BANKSIAS (Banksia)


Description: Woody Trees or shrubs with slender leathery, often serrated leaves and large coarse, bushy blossoms. Flowers come in a range of colours, yellowish, orange-brown, purplish or mauve pink.

Uses: Blossoms are laden with sweet tasting nectar that can be sucked from the flower or the blossoms can be soaked in water to make drinks, Aborigines sometimes allowed natural fermentation to produce an alcoholic drink (Low, 1988).


CREEK SANDPAPER FIG (Fiscus coronata)


Description: A bushy tree with dark green leaves that are sandpapery above and hairy bellow, they are alternate and often asymmetrical at the base. Figs are purplish-black, soft and very hairy (1.5-3cm long) and ripen from January to June.

Uses: The figs are sweet and flavoursome and the leaves make excellent sandpaper (Hiddins, 2001).


GRASS TREE (Xanthorrhoea resinosa)


Description: Consists of a woody trunk topped by a crown of tough, wiry, slender leaves. Pale yellow or cream flowers are produced on tall woody stalks in the early summer. The trunk exudes globules of yellow-dark red resin.

Uses: To Aborigines the Grasstree was an exceptionally useful plant. The flower is laden with sweet nectar and can be sucked or soaked in water to produce a sweet drink. The crisp crown of the trunk was traditionally split open and the starch eaten raw, but this is not recommended because it kills the tree. Grasstree starch is high in carbohydrates (41%) more than twice the calorie content of potatoes (Low, 1988). The resin was used by Aborigines as glue and the wooden flower stalks were made into firesticks or spears. Dead trunks sometimes contain edible white grubs and provide excellent firewood that burns with intense heat even in wet conditions.


COMMON APPLE BERRY (Billardiera scandens)


Description: small twining creepers with slender leaves, greenish or pale yellow tubular flowers and small, greenish, usually hairy, sausage-shaped fruits (1-2.5cm long).

Uses: Aborigines ate not only the ripe fruits, which taste like kiwi fruit, but also roasted and ate unripe fruit (Low, 1988).


DEVIL’S TWINES (Cassytha sp.)


Description: Easily recognised by their twining, wiry, leafless stems and succulent fruits, form wiry mats across the crowns of shrubs, parasitic plants (Low, 1988). Stems are greenish, orange-yellow or purplish red (1-2mm thick), and fruits are rounded or oval, sometimes ridged, hairy or smooth, any colour except blue and contain one round stone (4-15mm long) (picture shows fruits of Cassytha filiformis).

Uses: The small fruits of devils twines can be eaten, though most are resinous, sticky and not very tasty. Aborigines ate them as a snack food (contain small quantities of poisonous alkaloids which in large doses can cause stomach cramps).


WOMBAT BERRY (Eustrephus latifolius)


Description: Wiry Vine which trails over low branches or across the ground. Flowers are white or lavender-pink, with three of their six petals fringed. Leaves are soft and bright green with a lighter underside (3-11cm long), slender or broad and finely lined with parallel longitudinal veins. Ripe berries (1-1.5cm) are orange in colour and split to display shiny black seeds.

Uses: The burst berries contain a tiny amount of crisp white pulp which can be eaten, the small earthen coloured tubers (1-3cm long) taste sweet and juicy (Low, 1988).


SCRAMBLING LILLY (Geitonoplesium cymosum)


Description: Wiry vine that trails over low branches or across the ground. Flowers are white with unfringed petals, leaves are soft and bright green with a lighter underside. Berries are black and inedible.

Uses: Aborigines boil and eat the shoots (Low, 1988).


MORINDA (Morinda jasminoides)


Description: A common vine. Leaves are opposite, small, green, smooth and shiny. On the midrib it has at least one raised nodule and orange berries.

Uses: Berries can be eaten (Kohen, 2008).


NATIVE PASSION FRUIT (Passiflora herbertiana)


Description: Fast growing vine with trifoliate leaves and thin-skinned green fruits with white flesh. Flowers occur in spring followed by fruits ripening 3-4 months later.

Uses: Pulp from the fruit is eaten fresh or used in drinks (Trade Winds Fruit, 2008).




Description: Common prickly shrub or climber. Leaves are heart shaped or three lobed, large and broad (5-20cm long). With a crinkled surface and white underside. Flowers are white or reddish in colour and are followed by red raspberries (1.2cm wide).

Uses: The berries can be eaten raw and have a dry but sweetish taste (Low, 1988).


Warning - Edible Weeds WARNING: This test (or a very similar one) is given in many of the survival books, however it is not recommended to use this test on any unknown plant(s) unless you are in a situation where there are no other options for survival. Since you can live easily without food for a week or more (and probably a few weeks or more depending on the situation), unless you are lost for an extended period of time, in most cases you would be better off NOT to use this test at all. (Though it's okay — and generally a good idea — to use this test on plants that you are already able to identify and know to be safe to eat, just to be even more sure.)

Many people have died eating wild plants which they thought were edible. Fungi (e.g. mushrooms) are even more dangerous — the best attitude to fungi is to not even consider eating wild fungi under any circumstances. They contain almost no calories anyway. Even at least one expert on mycology (the study of fungi) along with all of his family has died from eating wild fungi that they believed to be edible.

Furthermore, to avoid potentially poisonous plants, stay away from any wild or unknown plants that have:

• Milky or discoloured sap. • Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods. • Bitter or soapy taste. • Spines, fine hairs, or thorns. • Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley like foliage. • "Almond" scent in woody parts and leaves. • Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs. • Three-leaved growth pattern.


When tasting unknown plants follow these guidelines to find out whether it is edible. If you want to make the test more robust, you could increase the amount of time between the steps to e.g. a whole day.

  1. Test only one part of a potential plant at a time

  2. Smell the potential food plant for strong or acid odours (but remember smell alone does not indicate if plant is edible).

  3. Select a small portion of a single part of the plant (i.e. fruit) and prepare it in the way you plan to eat it.

  4. Touch a small portion to the outer surface of the lips (testing for itching or burning sensation).

  5. If no reaction after 3 minutes then place the plant part on the tongue holding there for 15 minutes

  6. If no reaction, chew a portion without swallowing and wait 15 minutes

  7. If no burning, itching, numbing, stinging or other irritation occurs during the 15 minutes, swallow.

  8. Wait 8 hours, if any ill effects occur during this time drink lots of water and induce vomiting.

  9. If no ill effects occur eat half a cup of the plant part prepared the same way. Wait 8 hours, if no ill effects occur then the plant part as prepared is edible.

Chapter 2 — Bush Medicinal Plants

More than five hundred of the plant species native to Australia can be used medicinally. Some uses have been minor, others more complex. There are a number of properties that make plants valuable in medicine, these include: Tannins, Mucilage, oils, Latex, Alkaloids and several other groups of chemicals (Cribb & Cribb,1981).

However, preventative medicine is the best option (don’t get sick in the first place). Move slowly and surely through the bush, scan the ground in front of you and to the sides. Look up and around and be aware of where you step. Walk with a stick and thump the ground as you walk so snakes move out of your path (Windsong, 2006). Don’t grab onto plants before checking to see if they have thorns and learn to identify the stinging tree and stinging nettle.

If sickness is unavoidable here are some medicines that can be prepared from plants in the Mitchell Park Region. We recommend that you do not try making bush medicines to drink because some medicines have the potential to be poisonous if the concentration is incorrect, especially if they contain alkaloids (Hiddins, 2001).



Description: Commonly found growing on the edges of lagoons and waterways. It is distinguished by its long vertical flower spikes and straplike leaves (see page 4 for picture).

Uses: The watery sap from the plant was used by Aborigines as a protection against leaches. The brown and white down or fluff from the flowering spike can be used as a wound dressing (Hiddens, 2001).


UMBRELLA BUSH-WATTLE (Acacia bivervia)


Description: A shrub (3m high) with leaf-like phyllodes (4-9cm long) that are narrow, linear to oblong and are tapered at both ends with a recurved tip and rather thick. The seed pod is hard and constricted between individual seeds. Flowers occur from late winter to early spring as a profusion of yellow-orange balls.

Uses: Aborigines soaked the bark in water or boiled it and the decoction was used as a cough medicine (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

NATIVE CHERRY (Exocarpus cupressiformis)


Description: A tall shrub or small tree that is parasitic upon the roots of other species. Leaves alternate and are reduced to minute scales, all stems are green. The fruits are fleshy, bright red and somewhat egg-shaped structures (4-6mm long), with a dull green nut at its apex (see page 5 for picture).

Uses: Twigs made a good bitter tonic and astringent (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).


BRACKEN FERN (Pteridium esculentum)


Description: A perennial shrub (0.7-1.5m tall) with dark green, glossy and hard fronds on stiff stalks joined to hairy rhizomes (underground root-like stems) that contain slimy white starch.

Uses: The sap from the stems of young ferns was applied directly to insect bites by Aboriginal people to relieve the pain. A tea made from leaves and leaf stalks can be used to help rheumatism (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

ROUGH-BARKED APPLE (Angophora floribunda)


Description: Medium-sized to large tree (30m tall) with rough grey-brown back that is fibrous and generally furrowed. Leaves are glossy green to dull grey-green, narrow to oval shaped (5-15cm long) and tapered to a point at the ends. Flowers are white with a green keels, fruit are cup shaped and contain reddish-brown seeds.

Uses: The Kino (a reddish sap exuded from the trunk) was used by Aboriginals for the treatment of diarrhoea and stomach upset; 150 to 200g of a 10% solution in water was taken internally (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

TREE FERN (Cyathea australis)


Descriptions: A small to medium tree. Old bases of leaf stalks are persistent on the main stem; the scales of these bases are bright brown, glossy and leathery. Leave fronds are compound (bi-pinnate) and covered in faun or white hairs. Secondary leave axes are yellow-brown on the underside.

Uses: Aborigines are the roasted stalks of young leaves as a tonic after any kind of disease (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

NARROW-LEAVED IRONBARK (Eucalyptus crebra)


Description: Slow growing tree (10-25m high) with rough furrowed bark and long green leaves. Flowers are white and occur throughout April and September-November. The small seeds are contained in a woody capsule (3-7mm long) and are released between August and January.

Uses: Kino (sap exuded from the trunk) was used by Aborigines for the treatment of diarrhoea; a 10% solution in water, dose is about 150g of solution is drunk every 24 hours (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

BLOODWOOD (Eucalyptus gummifera)


Description: A medium to large tree (up to 30m high), with branches that are often gnarled, forming a dense crown, and bark that is rough, flaky and has numerous cracks. Leaves are tapered at both ends (10-16cm long) with an underside that is paler than the upper side. Flowers occur in summer as large terminal clusters. Seeds are contained in an urn-shaped capsule with large reflected broad rims (12-20mm long). Exudes a bright red gum (Kino) from splits and cracks in bark (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

Uses: The gum (Kino) was used by Aborigines to treat venereal sores, by both local and external and internal application. Charcoal from the bark was used as an antiseptic.

SYDNEY PEPPERMINT (Eucalyptus piperita)


Description: A medium tree (up to 20m high) often with a short bole and wide spreading branches. Bark is rough and fibrous on the trunk and larger branches, and smooth and ribbon-like on small branches. Juvenile leaves are opposite, mature leaves are alternate, dull green and tapered at both ends (6-12cm long). Flowers occur in early summer as clusters in leaf forks. Seeds are contained in oval-shaped capsules with deeply enclosed values (6-7mm in diameter).

Uses: The leaf oil has been used to treat stomach upsets, and can remove ‘choleic’ complaints (Cribb & Cribb, 1981)

RED STRINGYBARK (Eucalyptus resinifera)


Description: A large tree (up to 30m high), with reddish fibrous stringy bark on the entire tree. Mature leaves are stalked, alternate and tapered at both ends (10-16cm long), dark green above and paler underneath; juvenile leaves are also stalked, opposite, narrow and tapered at both ends. Flowers occur from spring to summer.

Uses: Aborigines drank a leaf decoction and rubbed the inner bark into syphilitic sores (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

FOREST RED GUM (Eucalyptus tereticornis)


Description: A large tree (up to 30m high), with smooth white or grey bark that is shed in long strips in autumn. Flowers are white and small seeds are contained in a woody capsule (4-8mm long) which is shed in November.

Uses: Kino was used to treat diarrhoea; a 5% solution in water was drunk (Cribb & Cribb, 1981).

SANDPAPER FIG (Ficus coronata)


Description: A bushy tree without aerial roots. Leaves are oblong-elliptical and are very rough on the upper surface (7-15m long). The fruit is purple black when fully ripe, usually densely hairy and egg shaped (8-20mm in diameter). All parts exude a milky latex when cut (see page 7 for picture).

Uses: The milky latex of young shoots was used by Aborigines in the healing of wounds (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).


SNOW IN SUMMER (Melaleuca linarifolia)


Description: A small tree (rarely up to 18m high), with papery bark, slender branches and hairy young shoots (see picture on left). Leaves are mostly opposite and are quite narrow and often keeled (12-35mm long). Its creamy white flowers occur in dense spikes around the end of stems (see picture on left). Woody seed capsules occur in dense elongated clusters around smaller branches (3mm in diameter). Flowers occur in spring and summer.

Uses: The oil, obtained by stem-distillation of the foliage can be used to externally treat boils, abscesses, sores, cuts and abrasions, as well as in conditions resulting in a pussy discharge. Crushed leaves were inhaled to relieve headaches (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

DEVILS TWINE (Cassytha filiformis)


Description: A sprawling parasitic vine with twining, wiry, leafless stems. Fruits are white, globular and smooth without prominent ribs. Stems are green-yellow in colour (see page 8 for picture).

Uses: Aborigines used the pulverised plant to clean ulcers, the juice of was occasionally used to treat inflamed eyes and the macerated plant was applied externally to sick people (Cribb & Cribb, 1981).


NATIVE GRAPE (Cissus hypoglauca)


Description: Tall evergreen climber, often forming massive ropes with tendrils opposite to the point of attachment of the leaves. Leaves are compound with 5 leaflets branching from the stem like fingers (5-8cm long); they are blunt at the base and elliptical. Produces yellowish flowers and bluish black globular berries that are edible.

Uses: A gargle made from the fruit can relieve a sore throat (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).




Description: A scrambling shrub or climber covered in prickles. Leaves are also prickly, round to elliptical, 3-5lobed, covered with rusty hair on the underside and margins are serrate. Flowers are white or red and fruit is a red nearly globular berry (12mm in diameter) that ripens during summer (see page 10 for picture).

Uses: Aboriginals soaked the small leaves in warm water and drank the infusion when suffering from stomach upset (Lassak & McCarthy, 2001).

LAWYER VINE (Smilax australis)


Description: A branched shrubby climber. Leaves are oblong to almost circular (5-15cm long), green on both sides, leathery and alternate. Fruits are black globular berries (10-15 mm in diameter), with one to 3 hard shining seeds. Flowers occur in summer, are greenish white and arranged in umbles in leaf forms.

Uses: Aboriginals used it as an alterative and tonic (Cribb & Cribb, 1981).


Chapter 3 — Bush Survival

Despite the vast size of Australia, becoming lost in the bush is quite difficult. Most watercourses, coastlines and roads soon lead to civilisation (Low, 1988). In the rare event of major mishap, the need to find food is usually secondary (people can survive weeks without food). It is more important to have water, shelter from extremes, and to be positioned where help will arrive (Windsong, 2006).

Locating Water

It is essential to know how to find water when surviving in the bush. Look for the lowest points in the landscape (bottom of hills, cliffs and gullies) water tends to collect in these areas. Seasonal creeks can hold water just under the surface months after the water above ground has dried up, look for lush vegetation before you start digging (Windsong, 2006). Follow well worn animal tracks down hill they will generally lead to water sources. Dew can be mopped up with cotton clothing and wrung out into containers.


It is best to start looking for shelter at least 2 hours before sunset. Look for natural shelters such as caves and rocky crevices with overhangs. Make sure the site is safe from rock falls and away from large over hanging tree limbs (may fall). Check for snakes and stinging insects such as ants and wasps before setting up camp (Windsong, 2006). Building a raised platform off the ground can save you from coming into contact with insects in the soil and under leaf litter that bite and cause serious itching.

Building a Fire

Clear the area where you are going to build the fire of twigs and leaves etc. at least 1 meter in diameter (to prevent the fire from spreading). You will need 3 types of fuel: 1) tinder - dry material that easily ignites with a spark, 2) kindling - small combustible material that will increase the temperature of the fire, and 3) fuel - bigger, harder wood, preferably hard dry logs (Windsong, 2006).

Satisfying Hunger

The highest energy foods are animals, seeds, tubers and inner shoots. Seeds are the most energy-rich plant foods but they are not practical survival foods (take a long time to harvest and usually contain toxins) (Brand et. al. 1985). Tubers along with animal foods should be the focus of survival. Water courses should always be searched first, most are home to a least on kind of tuber bearing plant (Low, 1988). All rushes and sedges have tubers that can be eaten raw. Water courses are also rich in animal foods and fruits and often lead to rescue.

Bracken, orchids and lilies also have edible tubers. The inner hearts of tree ferns, palms and grasstrees are very useful survival foods, although in large amounts may cause digestive upset (Hiddins, 2001). Many kinds of sedges have inner white leaf bases that can be eaten raw. Fruits that are eaten by bats are more likely to be edible than the fruits that are eaten by birds. Pale coloured gums from wattles and other trees (if palatable), can be eaten in small amounts but may cause diarrhoea or constipation (Low, 1988).

Animals are ideal survival foods; they contain more energy, fat and protein than plant foods (Cherikoff et. al, 1985). Fish such as Barramundi, Black bream, Herring, Bass, Mullet, Catfish and Eels are often found in freshwater systems and are very filling if they can be caught (Hiddins, 2001). Kangaroo’s, Wallaby’s, Bettong, Potoroo’s, Wombat, Platypus, Koala, Echidna’s, Bats, Possums, Gliders, Rats and Bandicoots are all found in the Mitchell park Region and are very suitable provided you can catch them (Kohen, 2008). Ideal staple foods are earthworms, Moths, Stick insects, Cicadas, Lizards, Snakes (avoid venom glands), Tortoises, Turtles and Shellfish. Look under rocks and logs for termites (very nutritious), centipedes and grubs, and swat mosquitoes and March flies, which taste sweet (O’Dea, 1991). Avoid Cane toads, Green frogs, Puffer fish, Colourful caterpillars, Stink bugs and Wasps (Low, 1988).

Wild foods should be cooked where possible, but remember that heat does not destroy the more dangerous toxins. Leaves, fungi, large seeds, wild beans and peas should be avoided because they are not worth the risk of poisoning (Low, 1988). These exceptions aside, learn to trust your sense of taste.


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Brand-Miller, J. C. & Holt, S. H. A. (1998) Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications. Nutrition Research Reviews, 11: 5-23

Brand , J. C. Cherikoff, V. & Truswell, A. S. (1985).The Nutritional Composition of Australian Aboriginal bush foods. 3. Seeds and Nuts. Food Technology in Australia, 37 (6):275:279.

Cherikoff, V., Brand, J. C. & Truswell, A. S. (1985).The Nutritional Composition of Australian Aboriginal bush foods. 2. Animal Foods. Food Technology in Australia, 37 (5):208-211.

Cribb A. B & Cribb J. W. (1981). Wild Medicine in Australia. William Collins Pty Ltd, Sydney Australia.

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Kohen, J. (2008). BIOL351: Aboriginal Bioresources Field trip notes. Department of Biological Sciences. Accessed: 12.10.08

Lassak E.V & McCarthy T. (2001) Australian Medicinal plants. New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney

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Image Credits

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BRAIN (2003). Rainforest Plants of the Brisbane Area Queensland, Australia). Brisbane Rainforest Action & Information Network. Accessed: 12.10.08

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Recommended Reading

Wild Food Plants of Australia, Tim LowWild Food Plants of Australia, Tim Low. This is easily the best book for edible plants that I know of for Southeast Australia. (And probably for almost all of Australia, though if you are mainly interested in the North, check out Les Hiddins' Pocket Guide). It is also small enough to carry easily. If I had to survive with only two books, this would be one and the other would be a survival book — the first "Naked Into the Wilderness" book by John and Geri McPherson, or possibly Thomas J Elpel's book.

Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase from Australia (Angus & Robertson)

Purchase from Australia (The Nile) (free shipping)

Click here to purchase from Australia (Fishpond)

Only available used on Amazon

The Bushman's Handbook, by H. A. Lindsay NEW: The Bushman's Handbook, by H. A. Lindsay. This is a really good re-published vintage book about surviving and living in the Australian bush. Vintage books are often better than modern ones, because more people knew and lived these skills back then.

Here's what the Literary Editor of Adelaide's Advertiser newspaper had to say about "The Bushman's Handbook" in late 1948: "If an ordinary city dweller were to be dumped down in the arid central regions of Australia it is fairly certain that if the season was cold he would perhaps survive a few days, but it's also certain that in the heat of summer he would be dead within 48 hours. But the aborigine would be quite at home in such circumstances, which would not be dire straits to him at all. He would know how to find water where apparently none existed, and would unearth sufficient food to enable him to travel safely to better country. The author of "The Bushman's Handbook", who is an expert bushman and descendant of bushmen, and who instructed thousands of Australian and American troops in bushcraft during WWII, here tells exactly how to survive in inhospitable terrain. As to your thirst, he describes how moisture may be obtained from the stems of plants and the limbs of trees - and he shows by illustrations just how the parched outback traveler should proceed. Food can be obtained from all sorts of unlikely sources - for instance, the bilious-looking but tasty and nutritious "witjuti" grubs can be gouged out from the bark of trees. For larger foods the reader is carefully instructed how to make simple but effective snares - to the undoing of rabbits, hares, squirrels and similar game. If you are near streams or pools you have no need to hunger if you follow the Author's instructions and diagrams which will enable you to catch the various kinds of fish without rod, reel or hook. There are also interesting and instructive talks about fire lighting (without matches); the art of camping out; direction finding if you happen to be lost; or how to cord and thatch a shelter for yourself; and on the various special plants and roots which it is safe to eat if driven to extremities. Lastly, the Author gives valuable advice on how to maintain health in the bush, and stresses the value of bushcraft, and the hardiness and self-reliance which it brings, in both peace and war. In all, an admirable and comprehensive bushman's text-book."

Four of the 18 chapters (43 out of 176 pages) are entirely dedicated to finding water in the bush.

Click here to purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

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Click here to purchase from Amazon

See Also

More Australian Bush Tucker / Edible Plant Books

Bush Tucker Plant Foods Index
The Bush Tucker Diet
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