Aboriginal Use of Mangroves

Mangrove plants are not commonly used directly as a food source, probably due to the high levels of tannins and other distasteful chemicals. Because mangroves are flowering plants, the flowers are a likely source for honey; native bees are found in the mangroves during the various flowering seasons, and these are exploited now by commercial apiarists with their exotic bees. A. marina is probably the only mangrove where bees build hives, but there are other trees found in coastal areas, such as Peltophorum pterocarpum, where hives are built. http://members.ozemail.com.au/~mmichie/mangr5.htm

Expertise in using mangroves for medicinal purposes has been acquired over a long period of usage. The techniques which are used vary from plant to plant, and often between groups of Aborigines. In some cases the plant, or its sap, is used directly. In other cases the leaves may be heated, or the plant material burned to an ash for application. Western science is beginning to isolate the active ingredients for some of these treatments.

Because of the intertidal nature of the mangrove environment, there is an associated movement of fish and other animal species into and out of the mangroves, as well as their presence there as larval forms. There is also seasonal movement of some animals, particularly birds, to and from the mangroves .Crustaceans and molluscs are the main two invertebrate groups which are exploited by Aborigines as a food source. Most of the hunting in the mangroves for these animals is done by women, often with children in tow. The mud crab, Scylla seratta, is an important food source and is eagerly hunted, using sticks to extract the crab from its hole. The crab is quickly disarmed by removing the main claws, and is usually cooked straight after hunting finishes. There are other crabs in the mangroves but most of these are not hunted as they are comparatively small. 

Crab hole in the trunk of the mangrove

The oyster Saccostrea scyphophilla is one species of bivalve which is often found attached to the prop roots of R. stylosa or to rocks at the same level. These are usually collected as bundles of shells and cooked in the coals. There are a number of other bivalves which are found in the mangroves or the mudflats immediately in front of them, as infaunal browsers. These are extracted from the mud and cooked in the coals of a fire. They are usually arranged in an orderly pattern to allow them to open without wasting the cooking juices.

An important bivalve which is found in dead and decaying mangrove wood is called “mangrove worm”, Teredo spp. The action of the shells moving together excavates a hole through the wood, and the wood shavings accumulate in the stomach which becomes a distended, worm-like bag. The mangrove worm is chopped from the wood using an axe and is eaten raw. http://members.ozemail.com.au/~mmichie/mangr5.htm

 This is adapted from Michie, M. (1993). The use of mangroves by Aborigines in northern Australia. Channel Island Field Study Centre Occasional Paper, No. 5.

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)

Mangrove Medicine

Mangrove grows on mudflat

There are only about 50 species or so, and each one is a keystone to the intertidal ecosystem they call home (Wikipedia). Despite the enormous number of animals depending on mangroves for shelter, western culture has seen mangrove forests as wastelands.  “mangroves are medicinal plants… widely used… rich in resources of steroids, triterpenes, saponins, tannins, alkaloids and flavonoids” (Namazi 2013).

Mangrove metabolism is thought to be more complicated than other trees in part because of the osmotic stress of brackish water requiring extra energy from the plant. Santini et al. were able to determine that Avicennia marina used fresh water and saline water for different metabolic processes. Growth is strongly correlated with rainfall, yet saline water was still traced through some xylem and phloem, showing that it is used by the plant without a full understanding of how or why.

The hydraulic mechanics of Avicenna marina have only been studied in depth since 2008. Nele Schmitz’s doctoral dissertation, Growing on the Edge, dives deep into the morphology of mangroves. Schmitz details how Avicennia Marina differ from terrestrial trees. While charismatic trees like Spruce have only a single cambria near the bark to carry freshwater, Avicennia Marina have many cambria, with a variety of phylum and xylem to support complex water transportation processes. While all vascular plants invest heavily in water transportation, mangroves are forced to spend even more energy here. 

Medicinal Uses of Mangroves

Root systems of the Mangrove

Mangroves are widely used by mangrove dwellers for bush medicine e.g. A. illicifolius is used for skin disorders, boils and wounds[12]. Numerous medicines derived from mangroves (ashes or bark infusions) can be applied for skin disorders e.g. Lumnitzera racemosa and sores including leprosy.. .”it is worthwhile to screen plant species which have the above properties to synthesize new drugs]. There is a rich species composition and 4000 ha of mangroves are present in Sri Lanka[8] and extracts from different mangrove plants are reported to possess diverse medicinal properties………………………….https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929774/#:~:text=Mangroves%20are%20widely%20used%20by,racemosa%20and%20sores%20including%20leprosy.

Mangroves are widely used by mangrove dwellers for bush medicine e.g. A. illicifolius is used for skin disorders, boils and wounds[12]. Numerous medicines derived from mangroves (ashes or bark infusions) can be applied for skin disorders e.g. Lumnitzera racemosa and sores including leprosy. They have been reported to treat different kinds of diseases (headaches, boils, ulcers and diarrhea)…As a preliminary study, it has found that aqueous and ethanol extracts of some mangrove species have antimicrobial activities.[16] Therefore, it is possible to control infectious agents using natural products responsible for the inhibitory effect on pathogenic microorganisms using mangrove plant extracts.

The economical uses of products from mangrove ecosystems are many and varied. Traditionally, the mangroves have been exploited for firewood and charcoal. Use has also been found for mangroves in the construction of dwellings, furniture, boats and fishing gear, tannins for dyeing and leather production. The mangroves provide food and wide variety of traditional products and artefacts for the mangrove dwellers. Extracts and chemicals from mangroves are used mainly in folkloric medicine (e.g. bush medicine), as insecticides and piscicides https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009988607044

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