Botanist and D'harawal elder Aunty Fran Bodkin has been learning about plants her entire life. Often by getting her hands dirty. Sometimes her underarms too.
“We used to have an allergy test that mum told us,” Aunty Fran explains. “We used to rub the back of our hands if we didn’t know what the plant was. If there was no reaction there we could then rub on the elbow. If there’s no reaction there, rub under the arm. Then your lips. Then you have a little taste of it and if there’s no reaction you can eat it. I’ve been doing that all my life.”
With decades of her own botanical experiments under her belt, and traditional knowledge handed down through her family and community, Aunty Fran was the ideal advisor for Waraburra Nura (The Happy Wanderer’s Place). It’s our new native garden located just outside Jumbunna on the Tower’s level 6 balcony. Here, timber planter boxes provide seating for visitors, as well as a home for a collection of plants native to the Sydney basin area.
One of Waraburra Nura’s purposes is to pass on knowledge of the traditional uses of its plants to the people who visit.
Take, for example, Grevillia Laurifolia. With its stunning red flowers, this plant is traditionally used to make an energy drink.
“The nectar was collected by washing the flowers in water until it had become sweet to taste,” says Aunty Fran. “It was then given to young children recovering from sickness as an energising drink or even just to drink while you're sitting by the fire chatting.”
Crowea, meanwhile, is a flower used to signify betrothal.
Aunty Fran explains: “The men gave this flower to the women they wanted to marry. If the woman rejected the love, she would have to give the flower back. But if she accepted it, she had to accompany him to that same bush and she would pick some flowers to give back to the man. Which I think is very romantic!”
If either partner was unhappy they could go back to that same bush, pick some flowers and hand them back to signal the end of the relationship. “But the sneaky thing of nature is that the plant only lives for four years, so you've only got four years to make up your mind,” Aunty Fran warns.
“Don’t tell anybody that though, ‘cause we don't want our men to know.”
Keen students, and staff, might want to schedule a visit to the garden for Eucalyptus Tereticornis at least a couple of times a year.
“It helps your memory,” promises Aunty Fran. “And it’s just the vapour that you use. You crush the leaf up into a little ball and you rub it between your hands very quickly until your hands get quite warm. Then you throw the leaf away and put your hands over your face, cover your nose and mouth and breathe in deeply.”
Aunty Fran says Eucalyptus Tereticornis helped her through her own university studies in the 60s.
“While I was studying, I would have the leaves in hot water beside me and I would be inhaling the vapour. When I got to the exam room I would again rub the leaves in my hand and I would remember what I had learned.”
The inspiration for Waraburra Nura came from Alice McAuliffe in UTS Art Learning and Projects. Alice is now exploring opportunities to incorporate the garden into learning and teaching at UTS.
Students, staff and visitors can check out Waraburra Nura weekdays between 6am and 9pm. Or visit waraburranura.com to find more information about the plants and their traditional uses.
Marketing and Communication Unit