Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

Aboriginal Heritage in the Sydney Botanic Gardens

When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour over 230 years ago, the crew faced a harsh and unfamiliar environment. Unlike the Indigenous people who had lived here for 1000s of years, they had no idea of how to survive the Australian Bush.

Aboriginal Heritage Tour

On the Aboriginal Heritage tour at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens I’m about to learn more from Todd, an Aboriginal man, about his culture and how his people used the bush to survive.

Following the example set by his Grandfather and Aboriginal people for thousands of years before him, Todd begins by acknowledging the land of the Cadigal people on whose land we stand. Very few Cadigal Elders are alive today and their language has almost disappeared.

Aboriginal Guide leading tour of Aboriginal Heritage Tour at Sydney's Botanic Gardens

We’re standing in Cadi Jam Ora (the First Encounters Garden) which is dedicated to native plants. A 50m timeline of the same name depicts significant events and shares important local stories as it snakes along the path.

Trade and Bush Tucker

Looking up at a tall pine tree, Todd points out a large ‘pineapple-like’ cone. The Bunya Pine tree, native to the Bunya Mountains in Queensland, is clear evidence of trade between Aboriginal nations along the East coast.

The Grass Tree

Todd describes only a few of the 56 different uses of the plant commonly known as the grass tree “otherwise we’ll be here all day”. The flowers on the spike produce a syrupy liquid which provides energy “like Red Bull” and resin from the plant is a very strong adhesive. None of our all-Australian group knows that the grass tree features on our $2 coin.    

In-between describing plants and their uses, Todd relates local stories and aspects of Aboriginal Culture. He refers to two significant local Aboriginal sites: a marriage ground and a traditional initiation site close to Mrs Macquarie’s chair.

Cadi Jam Ora displays the Aboriginal HeritageTimeline
Grass Tree overhangs the Timeline

Initiation often involved a pain element as a sign of bravery. At the end of the initiation ceremony, Cadigal youths would have an incisor knocked out by the ‘spear’ from a grass tree.

The Sand Paper Fig

Taking a leaf from the Sandpaper Fig, I rub my fingers across the rough surface which gives the tree its name. The leaves were used to polish wooden weapons like boomerangs and the women filed their nails with the leaves. 

Wasps fertilized the figs which grow on the tree trunk, “so when eating the fig, you may get some extra protein” says Todd.

Plants Protect

Describing Dianella, a green strappy bush, as “your best friend” Todd points out how the sharp-edged leaves repel snakes. Blowing on a hollow in the base of the leaf makes a whistle sound. Young children are taught when lost to sit amongst dianella and blow the whistle to stay safe from snakes until they’re found.

Lomandra seeds can be used in breadmaking.
Collect the Seeds for Breadmaking

Plants Nourish

Native plants have been a food source for Aboriginal people for 1000s of years. Lomandra seeds and parts of the Cycad are used in breadmaking but like other edible natives, must be prepared correctly to remove toxins.

We taste a native raspberry and exclaim at the strong almost medicinal taste of the native mint leaf. A scrunched-up Lemon Myrtle leaf, Todd’s “favourite tree”, releases a distinctively lemony scent. Paperbark is used to wrap food when cooking, and the golden wattle leaf makes a good soap when rubbed with water and when fishing can be used “to stun the fish”.

Walking past the small-scale “First Farm” of introduced crops, Todd describes the first colonial farm as “a disaster” needing “round the clock” care to survive.

Historic Aboriginal Figures

He tells stories of Pemulwuy, the first Aboriginal resistance leader and Bennelong, considered by some as a traitor for amongst other things sharing his bush tucker knowledge with colonial officers. Bennelong’s wife Barangaroo was a feisty woman. Like other local indigenous women, she had part of the little finger of her right hand removed in infancy to “make it easier to fish with a hand line”. 

Pemulwuy is part of Aboriginal Heritage as discovered on the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens tour
Image of Pemulwuy

While it’s pleasant standing in the spring sunshine, the mosquitoes are out and my hands start to itch. The woman next to me asks “Is there a native plant for mozzies? I’m being eaten alive”. Unfortunately, there’s nothing near at hand. 

Charles Perkins and Mum Shirl

Todd points out Charles Perkins who in the 60s led the Freedom Ride which drew attention to racism in country New South Wales.  He talks about his wife’s grandmother, Mum Shirl. She was an activist who helped to establish the first Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services.  

Stingless native bees fly in and out of their hive in a low tree stump. They produce about one litre of honey a year and are good weather forecasters. If they are hiding, it means rain or a drop in temperature.

When introducing Aboriginal artefacts, Todd explains how to tell if a boomerang has been made according to traditional methods. If it hasn’t, it will “split on impact”. He describes how when hunting for emu eggs, people hold the egg up to their face and whistle. If the chick whistles back, they return the egg to the nest and look for a less developed egg.

A Native Bee Hive
Native Bees Live Here

Todd holds up a Sydney Rock Oyster shell larger than the palm of his hand. He explains that by inspecting the most recent layer of shells in a midden, locals knew which shellfish to leave alone and which they could collect to ensure sustainability.

Unfortunately, these days the Sydney Rock oyster doesn’t get a chance to grow big and fat.

Renewed Respect for Aboriginal Heritage

Todd shares his knowledge in a gentle and humorous manner. I leave him with a greater understanding and new respect for his forefathers who survived for 1000s of years in the harsh Australian bush.  

Useful Information

  • The Aboriginal Heritage Tour operates from the Garden Shop of the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens at 10am on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday except public holidays.
  • It costs $42 per person
  • Click here for more information


  1. I would love to incorporate more from nature into my daily life. Its so easy to go to the supermarket but how cool to get an emery board from the sandpaper fig or some yummy syrup from the grass tree for your pancakes. I bet we could find plenty from nature here in the USA as well. Thanks for the inspiration Jo.

    1. Author

      I’m sure you get plenty from your backyard – what with the squirrels and autumn colours.

  2. How informative this was … I did not know the significance of Bennelong & Barangaroo! Now I know ?. I have a few native herbs at home that I use after watching an Aboriginal chef on a cruise I did – made me want to try them

    Thanks Joanne

    1. Author

      I’m pleased you found it interesting, Chrissie. I haven’t yet tasted much food made with native ingredients. Something to look forward to.

  3. I love listening to how Aboriginals lived with the land. We have so much to learn from them. I wish schools had introduced Indigenous Heritage and language Education as part of it’s curriculum.
    I have friends coming from England to Sydney and I am taking them sightseeing, unfortunately only for one day. I found an Aboriginal tour of the Rocks area which I thought would be great.
    Thanks for sharing this one, and the Harbour Bridge Climb Joanne. I like how they integrate the tours in this way.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your insights, Kerrie. I have heard that the Aboriginal Tour of the Rocks is great. I have yet to do it.

  4. This tour has been on my list for a while now, Joanne. Thanks for your interesting & informative article ✅.

Leave a Comment