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Desert Bush Medicine

Image of Luritja Elder John SpencerDesert Aboriginal people have used bush medicines for thousands years and are still using them today. The same plants growing in different language group areas are often used in different ways. Different parts of the plant are considered more effective by different language groups and the way that the medicines are prepared differs from group to group.

In the old days plant extracts were often crushed and mixed with animal fats, such as emu and goanna. Nowadays, the animal fats are replaced by products such as Vaseline.

Rubbing medicines can also act like a moisturising lotion so at times it can be used daily to keep the moisture in the skin.

When you live here in Central Australia you can only imagine how dry the skin can get, so you need to rub some form of lotion on to protect yourself from the very harsh sun.

Water is the best medicine.

Cold sores and Mouth Ulcers

Arrernte Untyeye

Long-leaved Corkwood


Hakea suberea

Story You collect the bark from this tree and put if on the edge of your fire until the bark starts to glow red.  Then take it off and let it cool. It will then be black. Crush the bark up into a black powder and rub it on the mouth ulcer or cold sore.  This will sooth the ulcer and clear up the sore.

Coughs and Colds

Arrernte Arrethe
English Rock Fushia Bush
Scientific Eremophila Freelingii
Story You collect a large handful of the leaves and you boil them in water until it turns dark in colour. Then you pour the mixture into a hot bath and lie and inhale the vapour. You can also crush the leaves and mix in hot Vaseline to make a rub. When it cools down rub it on your chest.

Teething Babies

Arrernte Apweke-Apweke
English Scarlet Bracket Fungus
Scientific Pycnoporus coccineus

When babies are teething, you look for this fungus on the dead trees on the ground. Rub the fungus on the baby’s gum and the pain will stop.

Broken Limbs

Arrernte Ilkitjirra
English Dead Finish
Scientific Acacia tetragonophylla
Story You dig up the roots of this tree and peel off the bark. Then you wrap this around the broken limb to protect the break. 


Arrernte Tyape
English Witchetty grub
Scientific Lavae of the Xyleutes moth
Story You collect the witchetty grubs from the roots of the witchetty bush and crush them into a paste. Then you apply the paste and cover with a bandage or dressing. This protects the injured area from air and helps it to heal.

Cuts, Sores and Boils

Arrernte Arrkenke
English Desert Bloodwood Tree
Scientific Corymbia opaca
Story You can apply the sticky gum found on the trunk of the tree directly to a sore, cut or boil. This works as an antiseptic. You wash the gum off and re-apply frequently until the wound heals. If the gum has set hard on the tree, you can crush it into a powder and mix it with water and use it as an antiseptic wash.


Arrernte Ilkitjirra
English Dead Finish
Scientific Acacia tetragonophylla
Story You break off about six needles from the tree and stick around the base of the wart.  Break them so that only the needle points are in the flesh. You leave them for about four or five days until the wart falls off.


Arrernte Ingkwelpe
English Bush Tobacco
Scientific Nicotiana gossei and Nicotiana Excelsior
Story There are many different species of native tobacco.  Aboriginal people only use a few of the varieties. These are valued and sought after plants. You dry the leaves and crush them. Then you burn the bark of either the Ironwood Tree or the Red River Gum tree. This will make an ash. Then you mix the ash with the crushed native tobacco and chew it for it’s narcotic affect. This will slow your heart rate down and relax you. When you have chewed it, you will forget about your hunger pains and thirst and so you are able to travel long distances on foot.  (This is often mistakenly called ‘Pituri’ which is actually Emu Bush Duboisia Hopwoodii).

Compare with Sonoran Desert culture.