Have you discovered the new forecourt garden at the National Museum in Canberra? It’s been gracing the entrance to the museum for about 18 months though I must admit I’ve walked past it a few times without paying much attention. It turns out it contains a whole world of discovery: a mosaic of plantings from across Australia, places to sit and even a little amphitheatre. Perhaps most surprising is the plethora of native plants which have provided food sources and medical supplies for Indigenous cultures for thousands of years where you least expect them.
My awareness was raised this time as I took part in a Tasting Australia garden tour, part of a series of seasonal walks through the garden with each season highlighting different plantings and smells. The tours, which have been running for a year, are led by Adam Shipp, a Wiradjuri man and a Canberra local, from Yurbay. Adam combines his interest with the land and environment, sparked by his days as a Parks Ranger and informed by knowledge that’s been shared from Indigenous elders across the country. Ah, the things you discover when you have someone knowledgeable pointing things out.
The first thing we learnt about was Kangaroo Grass. I’ll be honest—I really thought it was a weed but actually it’s a native grain, a little like wheat, whose seeds were historically collected, dried and ground before being made into a bread. It’s a grain that’s gluten free and very high in protein. It’s even being used commercially in Melbourne now after author and Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking work to process kangaroo grass to prove the commercial value of native Australian crops. There’s another grass in the garden that’s a relative of rice and a spikey plant that produces a grain a bit like quinoa—all those food supplies just lurking there inconspicuously in plain sight.
Next up I learn that the familiar red bottle brushes (callistemons) are a source of natural sugar. Just follow the bees and you can pick the flowers to steep in water—cold is best—to make yourself a little bush cordial. Pretty subtle if you’re imagining the Cottee’s- type cordial but sweet nonetheless.
We wander among other plants that produce an array of useful things: sap that produces a strong adhesive, timbers for grinding stones or boomerangs, and materials for baskets and rope. Others have medicinal properties, to be used as a poultice to draw out infection, to clear up a sinus headache or perhaps to soothe your sleep. Watching the plants can also provide an indication of when other things are occurring in nature as natural weather watchers. And of course, there’s an array of plants which provide foods, from grains and seeds to greens to eat with your meal.
Of course, some plants are poisonous so it pays to know what you’re doing. Get it right though and you can use one of those poisonous plants (when ingested) to stun fish in waterways instead.
We finished our tour with a cup of bush tea flavoured with lemon myrtle and a sample of some different seeds and leaves and even a little native pepper. It’s not quite like scones and cream at the Ritz and it’s not going to fill your tummy but it is very interesting.
Some of the plant species we talked about which produce edible seeds can be found in various locations around Canberra, including various species of wattle so it’s possible to go out and do some foraging yourself for a little supply of wattle seeds—which are nutty and quite delicious. But you need to know where to go, how to differentiate between different species and how to recognise the best time to gather seeds. It’s a time consuming process which is why you don’t see many such seeds commercially. One exception is Cootamundra wattle seeds, a great source of Omega 3 oils, which are now available online.
If you’re in Canberra and want to delve a little deeper, Adam’s business Yurbay offers a range of workshops and talks, including hands-on walking experiences in Canberra locations which introduce the local foods and medicine plants of the region. For those dedicated to food, Adam can also do bush tucker cooking classes on demand.
Check with the museum when the next tour is on, or if you can’t get to Canberra, the good news is you can hop onto the Museum’s website and take a virtual tour through their videos instead.
Even if you don’t get on a tour, next time you’re at the museum, look a little closer at the garden on the way in. It’s a treasure trove just in itself. Ask at the Information Desk about free host talks about the garden features and the importance of fire and smoke or pick up a brochure about local bird life.
Don’t get confused though about the Garden of Australian Dreams a little further in behind the fence: there’s another world of discovery there as well hidden in the symbolism.