Medicinal uses of native plants – Part 1 Early colonial uses

By Jennifer Farrer

Early settlers on the whole were not willing to try Aboriginal treatments but preferred to try plants which reminded them of those they had known in Britain and other countries such as India and China.


The main health problem facing the first European settlers was scurvy as they had no supplies of fresh food and were ignorant of the food available to them in the Sydney bush. The most popular antiscorbutic was Bush Tea or Sweet Tea made from the leaves of native sarsparilla (Smilax glyciphylla). Soldiers and convicts gathered its sweet tasting leaves, from which a bitter/sweet tea was made. It was so important that the English risked death from hostile Aboriginal people to obtain it. The Vitamin C content is similar to tomatoes at 26 milligrams per 100 grams and far less than oranges.

Eucalypt oil

Another early plant used medicinally by colonists was the Sydney peppermint (Eucalyptus piperita). The odour of its crushed leaves is vaguely pepperminty and probably reminded them of their own English peppermint Mentha piperita. Its volatile oil obtained by steam distillation of the foliage was reputed to cure “cholicky” complaints and was the first plant product sent from Australia to England. The chemical composition of the two oils is very different. It was a happy accident of nature that the two oils had similar medicinal qualities and it is fortunate that Eucalyptus oil was only taken in small amounts as it is more toxic than peppermint oil.

The person credited with being the first to discover the usefulness of Eucalyptus oil was Denis Considen, Surgeon of the First Fleet. He sent a sample to Joseph Banks in 1788.

Other plants used to alleviate coughs and colds

Native mints were substituted for the related European plant Pennyroyal. The leaves were boiled in water for 15 minutes and the tea sweetened with sugar. It was taken warm at bedtime for coughs and colds and other aches and pains.

Melaleuca quinquenervia oil can be obtained by steam distillation of the leaves and used for coughs and colds and externally for neuralgia and rheumatism.


Tonic is a word that is disappearing from everyday use. A tonic is an agent which will give the body strength and vigour without any adverse side effects. The term tonic is a vague one as it refers to the treatment of certain symptoms without taking into account their underlying causes. Knowledge of how diseases developed and their causes was rudimentary and expert medical attention was not readily available, so there was a real need for remedies that would help to combat loss of appetite, weakness and lassitude that accompanied most illnesses.

To the early settlers tonics were very important. It is likely that after arriving here, weakened by a long and exhausting voyage, suffering from the effects of inadequate nutrition and confronted by a hostile harsh environment, they were prone to all kinds of fevers and digestive disorders. Since bitters and certain other bitter tasting remedies were held in high repute as nerve tonics at that time, any local bitter tasting plants were eagerly sought and investigated for medicinal use.

In Sydney native sarsparilla Smilax glyciphylla was also used extensively as a tonic and was a common article of trade among Sydney herbalists in the 19th century. A decoction was prepared by prolonged boiling of the leaves to obtain a thin syrup which was bottled for later use. This procedure would have destroyed its Vitamin C content. It was also used as a medicine for coughs and chest complaints.

Antiseptics and Bactericides

The Aboriginal people knew many plants which were useful in curbing infections. The early settlers do not seem to have used many of them. It may have been the higher standard of hygiene such as the common use of soap or the widespread use of methylated spirits and carbolic acid for wound disinfection. Although early settlers did use eucalyptus oil as a reputed antiseptic which is odd as it has few antibacterial properties. Maybe its clean, crisp smell encouraged them to believe it was effective.

In the 1920s A.R. Penfold and his team at the Technological Museum in Sydney (now the Powerhouse Museum) discovered the high germicidal activity of the essential oil obtained by the steam distillation of Melaleuca alternifolia foliage.

To extract the oil the leaves and terminal branchlets of Melaleuca alternifolia have to be boiled with water and the oil separated from the condensed aqueous steam distillate . One kilogram of foliage will yield only between 12 and 25 gm of oil. The small oil yield and the relatively complicated procedure for its extraction may explain why this shrub’s medicinal properties were not discovered earlier.

Tea tree oil can penetrate unbroken skin and is particularly useful in the treatment of infected fingernail beds, coral cuts, tinea, some types of boils, mouth ulcers, as well as all kinds of cuts and abrasions.

Its remarkable bactericidal properties even contributed to our Second World War effort!

“An interesting application of the oil is its incorporation in machine cutting oils, the germicidal and healing properties having reduced to a minimum infection of skin injuries, especially abrasions to the hands by metal filings and turnings. Large quantities of Melaleuca alternifolia oil were used for this purpose in the various ammunition annexes during World War II”  Sydney Technological Museum 1946.

Digestion and Elimination

The generally hot Australian climate and the lack of hygiene as well as poor nutrition contributed in varying degrees to all kinds of digestive complaints. Fortunately there are many Australian plants which can be used to alleviate some of the unpleasant symptoms of these conditions.

Astringents to stem the secretion of body fluids and thus able to check diarrhoea were available from various plant exudates or extracts from the very beginning of the colony. Some of these were red or brown exudates of eucalypts and angophoras often referred to as kino. This is a word from India. Kino had been introduced to Europe in the mid 18th century from plants from Africa. The kino from Australian angophoras, eucalypts and corymbias presents first as a red currant jelly like substance which hardens until it is crystalline. There is no smell but it is astringent to taste. The active ingredient is kinnotannic acid which affects the lower intestine. Kino from Australia was introduced into Europe as early as 1810 when the gum of the ironbark Eucalyptus siderophloia, was collected by convicts under the name Botany Bay Kino. About 200 ml of kino from the Sydney red gum Angophora costata was mixed with water in a 10% solution and taken as a daily dose.

Tannins present in the bark of many trees have astringent qualities which are effective in the treatment of diarrhoea eg Acacia decurrens and casuarinas. The kino from the scribbly gum Eucalyptus haemastoma was used to treat cuts, wounds and ulcers. It was also used as a throat gargle.

Early settlers reported using gum from wattle trees dissolved in hot milk for the treatment of diarrhoea and dysentery with good results but no one knows which wattle gum was used. The gum of the Sydney green wattle Acacia decurrens is not soluble in water.

Other plants

  • Leaves of the native raspberries Rubus species were used to treat stomach upsets and diarrhoea.
  • Eucalyptus oil was also used to treat stomach upsets and “cholicky” complaints.
  • The leaves of the native mint Prostanthera rotundifolia were used to ease flatulence. This is not surprising as peppermint is also used for this purpose.
  • Manna found on the manna gum Eucalyptus viminalis was used as a mild laxative.

Note: Care should be taken in using any native plants for medicinal purposes without expert knowledge.

This article by Jennifer Farrer first appeared in APS Parramatta Hills Group newsletter Calgaroo. Part 2 is on commercial uses of medicinal native plants.

The information is from a variety of sources including the book Australian Medicinal Plants by E.V. Lassak and T. McCarthy (Reed New Holland, 2011) gathered by Jennifer over many years as a guide with Boronia Tours.