Indigenous Uses of Mangroves

Mangroves have traditionally been used by Indigenous Australians as sources of food, including mangrove fruit, mud crabs, clams and fish such as barramundi. Mangrove timber has traditionally been used to make canoes, paddles and weapons such as shields, spears and boomerangs.

The increasing interest in bush tucker amongst non-Aboriginal people has highlighted the use by Aborigines of the resources of many habitats in Australia. There has been an upsurge in respect for knowledge held by Aborigines, which demonstrates a fundamental change in attitude towards Aborigines and their skills and talents. Coastal Aborigines in the northern Australia are major users of the mangroves, where there is an abundance of animal and plant resources.

Plant resources

There are three potential types of use for plants in a traditional society, for food, for medicines and for other purposes including tools and weapons. Table 1 lists some of uses of mangroves made by Aborigines in northern Australia. The uses vary from place to place, depending on which species are present locally and the experience of the Aborigines there. There does not appear to be much ‘shared knowledge’ even between adjacent groups; this is probably a consequence of groups using the mangroves in isolation whereas in other environments they are more likely to come in contact with other people

Traditional uses of mangroves and other plants in the mangrove habitat by Aborigines. Uses of mangroves vary from place to place and locations are given for uses in specific uses. This table is not comprehensive and comes from a variety of sources (see References).

Mangrove speciesFood useMedical useTool use
Acrostichium speciosumstems eaten after roasting  
Aegiceras corniculatumnectarsmoke for making babies strong (Belyuen)axe handles and digging sticks (Belyuen)
Aegialitis annulata  children’s toys as stingrays (Groote Eylandt, Tiwi), whistles (Belyuen, Tiwi)
Avicennia marina, white mangrovefruit eaten after treatment, (Mornington Is; Tiwi; Boorroloola, Roper R; Belyuen; Bardi; Dampierland); flavour in cooking mussels (Groote Eylandt); nectar sting-ray and stonefish ‘stings’ (Milingimbi); ringworms, sores and boils (Yirrkala); scabies (general); ‘cheeky’ mangrove worm medicine for coughs (Tiwi)shields
Bruguiera exaristatamangrove worm (Tiwi) fishing boomerangs (Bardi)
Bruguiera gymnorrhizamangrove worm (Tiwi); hypocotyls eaten after treatment (Cape York) spear tips (Belyuen); throwing sticks for hunting magpie geese (Tiwi); boomerangs
Bruguiera parvifloramangrove worms (Milingimbi; Tiwi) paddles (NQ)
Brugiera rheediihypocotyls eaten after treatment (Cape York)  
Camptostemon schultzii, kapok mangrove skin sores and scabies; leprosy sores (Galiwin’ku, Ramingining; Milingimbi)canoes and catamarans (Kimberley); canoes and floats (Milingimbi; Tiwi); floats (Ramingining)
Ceriops australisspear shafts (Tiwi)
Ceriops tagal sores and infections (Yirrkala); scabies (Tiwi)fishing boomerangs and spears (Bardi); sticks for hunting magpie geese (Tiwi)
Diospyros compactafruit eaten  
Excoecaria ovalisnectar (Groote Eylandt) toxic plant, latex causes skin to swell (Milingimbi); leprosy sores, marine stings, body painfloats for turtle hunting, firewood (Groote Eylandt); cordage
Hibiscus tiliaceusboils (Yirrkala, Galiwin’ku); washing wounds (NT); headaches, splints for fingers (Groote Eylandt)woomeras, light spears, fire sticks, harpoon rope (Groote Eylandt); string from inner bark (Belyuen); string and rope from inner bark, spear shafts, fire-sticks (Tiwi)
Lumnitzera littoreanectar-rich flowers as sweets (Yirrkala) digging sticks, throwing sticks (Belyuen)
Lumnitzera racemosanectar spears for hunting wallabies and stingrays (Tiwi); firewood, fire sticks, spears
Nypa fruticansmud mussels at base (Tiwi); unripe seeds eaten (NQ)  
Osbornia octodontacooking herbtoothache, insect repellant 
Pemphis acidula toothache (Groote Eylandt)woomera peg, digging sticks (Groote Eylandt)
Rhizophera apiculatamangrove worm (Tiwi)skin sores (Tiwi)ceremonial armbands (Tiwi)
Rhizophora stylosamangrove worm (Tiwi); mud crabs found at roots (Belyuen; Tiwi)skin sores (Tiwi); ulcers and yaws (NT)ceremonial armbands (Tiwi); boomerangs, spears, firewood (Bardi); clubs (Arhnem Land)
Scyphiphora hydrophylacea spears and digging sticks (Tiwi); yamstick
Sonneratia albanectarskin disorders (Tiwi)tops (Tiwi); carving wood
Thespesia populneoides scabiesplates (Groote Eylandt); spears, (Milingimbi); axe handles (Bardi); fire sticks, shafts for spears (Kalumburu); rope from inner bark, fire-sticks (Tiwi); fish poison
Xylocarpus mekongensis all-purpose medicine (NT)canoe repairs, shade tree (Groote Eylandt)

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