Plants in the Skyworld

Plants of all sorts are extremely important and valuable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people. They are used for food, crafts, medicine, clothing, and much more. They are also closely connected to the sky!

Flora was ever present in the Aboriginal accounts of where ancestor spirits resided, with plants being perceived as part of the visible structure of the Skyworld. In southwest Victoria the crepuscular rays in the west after sunset were called “rushes of the sun”.  The local Adelaide people consider the Milky Way to be a large river, along the banks of which common reeds (Phragmites australis) are growing. The Weilwan people of NSW believe The Milky Way is Warrambool – a strip of land abounding in fine trees and shrubs, with a stream of water running though it – home or promenade of the blessed dead, while the Southern Cross was called Nguu and represented “tea-tree”. In the Gamilaraay country in northern central New South Wales, the Southern Cross was called Yarraan and was seen as a large river red gum tree (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) like those that grow along the inland creek systems.

“The Southern Cross was the first Minggah, or spirit tree a huge Yaraan, which was the med- ium for the translation of the first man who died on earth to the sky. The white cockatoos which used to roost in this tree when they saw it moving skywards followed it, and are follow- ing it still as Mouyi, the pointers. The other Yaraan trees [river red gums] wailed for the sadness that death brought into the world, weeping tears of blood. The red gum [kino] which crystallises down their trunks is the tears.”

In the Gulf Country of south-west Queensland, the people of the Hamilton and Georgina Rivers called the Venus Mumungooma, or big-eye, and believed that it was a fertile country covered with bappa, or grass, the seeds of which were converted into flour, and that it was inhabited by Aboriginal ancestors. There was no water in the “star”, but there were ropes hanging from its surface by means of which the earth could be visited from time to time and thirst assuaged. The southwest of Queensland is part of a larger region where ground grass seeds was a major subsistence strategy, particularly during droughts.

Another tradition of the Dieri accounts for the fossil remains found at Lake Eyre, and called by them Kadimarkara, as having been creatures which, in the old times of the Mura-muras [Creation ancestors], climbed down from the sky to the earth by the huge Eucalyptus trees on which it rested, and which grew on the western side of Lake Eyre.

Explore more about the plant-sky connections in Aboriginal culture by reading the two excellent papers below.

Published Research