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November 3, 2009

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Currently at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, there is a display of baskets woven by aboriginal women, some dating from the 1840’s (See new article here).

The exhibition is called Tayenebe, which means ‘exchange’ in the language of the south eastern Nueonne people of Bruny Island, and reflects the centuries of different cross and intercultural interactions based on the making and collecting of Tasmanian Aboriginal fibre work.

While the impetus for the tayenebe project has been the desire to reconnect with the cultural craft of ancestors, it also opens a window into Tasmanian ethnobotany (the study of plants as it relates to ethnic cultures).

Basket weaving is an ubiquitous theme in ethnic cultures worldwide. Baskets, woven by fibre-plants available as part of the natural vegetation, were held in high regard by aboriginal women and served very practical uses like holding shellfish, eggs and other foodstuffs.

That is where the ethnobotany comes into the picture.

The Tasmanian aborigines used a large number of very common sedge and sedge-like plants in their basket weaving. Examples of these are usually members of the Flag irises (Diplarrena spp.), Flax lilies (Dianella spp.), Sagg (Lomandra longifolia) and sedges of the genus Lepidosperma, a large genus of plants commonly known as swordsedges.

I noted from perusing the exhibition and the publication Tayenebe: Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work accompanying the exhibition an incomplete list of the plants used by the Tasmanian aborigines for basket weaving. This I have produced below and will update as I find more references.

IRIDACEAE (Iris family)
Diplarrena moraea (White Flag-iris)
Diplarrena latifolia (Western Flag-iris)

Lomandra longifolia (Sagg)

Lomandra longifolia (Sagg)

CYPERACEAE (Sedge Family)
Gahnia grandis (Cutting Grass)
Lepidosperma concavum (Sand Swordsedge)
Lepidosperma ensiforme (Arching Swordsedge)
Lepidosperma gladiatum (Coast Swordsedge)
Schoeoplectus pungens (Sharp Clubsedge)

HEMEROCALLIDACEAE (Hemerocallis Family)
Dianella revoluta (Spreading Flaxlily)
Dianella tasmanica (Forest Flaxlily)

JUNCACEAE (Rush Family)
Juncus pallidus (Pale Rush)

LOMANDRACEAE (Lomandra Family)
Lomandra longifolia (Sagg)

MALVACEAE (Mallow Family)
Asterotrichion discolor (Tasmanian Currajong)
Gynatrix pulchella (Fragrant Hempbush)

MYRTACEAE (Eucalypt Family)
Eucalyptus obliqua (Stringybark)

Lepidosperma gladiatum (Coast Swordsedge)

THYMELAEACEAE (Riceflower Family)
Pimelea linifolia (Slender Riceflower)
Pimelea nivea (Bushmans Bootlace)

TYPHACEAE (Cmbungi or Cattail Family)
Typha domingensis (Slender Cumbungi)
Typha orientalis (Broadleaf Cumbungi)

In addition to sedges and sedge-like plants, the aborigines also utilized fibres from some flowering shrubs and trees as well. The common name of Pimelea nivea, Bushmans Bootlace, alludes to the fibrous nature of the bark of the shrub.

Some of the exhibits in the Tasmanian museum were made in modern times and were further adorned by shells and vines of other plants like the Blue Lovecreeper (Comesperma volubile).

Did the aboriginal women of times past adorn their fibre work likewise?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

It is joyous and heartening to know that the craft is still alive and well. Life, with each passing generation, will bring adornments and improvements to this ancient craft, as long as there are those who keep the knowledge alive.

The number of visits one makes to the Saturday Salamanca market is inversely proportionate to the duration of time one spends in Tasmania.

Yet, after five years in Tasmania I was delighted to find a store in the market showcasing a fascinating caveat of Tasmania’s botanical heritage, something that I had failed to notice all this while.

These petrified trunks, chalcedonic in nature, were found at Lune River down near the southernmost tip of Tasmania. The sections are believed to date to 165 million years back and are claimed to belong to the manfern (Dicksonia).

However, these petrified sections are not actually man ferns.

There is a a fabulous publication Occurences of gemstone minerals in Tasmania available online, which sheds some details on the fern flora at the Lune River location during the late Jurassic to early Cretaceous.

The fabulously preserved specimens show beautifully and clearly the vascular details of the caudex (or trunk), allowing paleobotanists (botanists who study fossils) to discern at least 11 species of arborescent (tree-like) ferns belonging to 3 genera.

The largest of these genera is Osmundacaulis (Osmundaceae) of which 8 species have left petrified remains at the Lune River. These fossils are world famous fossils among collectors and lapidiarists. They are often distinguished by the distinctive C-shaped vascular strands belonging to petioles (leaf stalks) that surround the central stem.

Closeup of Osmundacaulis jonesii petrified trunk section. Vascular details showing the C-shaped vascular strands.

Given this information, I suspect that the sections in the Salamanca store are from Osmundacaulis. A famous fern of this family is the Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) from Europe, America and Asia. However the true closest modern day living relative of Osmundacaulis in Tasmania would be the Southern Kingfern (Todea barbata).

Todea barbata (Southern Kingfern)

Todea barbata, while not exactly a tree fern, has a thick trunk and can become treefern-like. I have had the pleasure of seeing a nice healthy population of some rather large Kingferns at the base of the Blue Tiers.

I imagine that if civilization still exist and still indulges in the study of paleobotany in 165002009 AD, they might find Kingfern fossils in what they might call the Blue Tiers fossicking site.

As for why the fossil sections were touted as belonging to manferns, I imagine it helps the seller to relate to potential customers. Many people in Tasmania would have heard of manferns but few would know of kingferns. Imperialism is outdated these days.

More links

Geological setting of Jurassic plant fossils near Lune River

It is common knowledge that the grassland ecosystem is one of high botanical biodiversity. Even disturbed grasslands can have a rather high diversity of a mixed bag of native and exotic plants.

Whilst strolling along the side of a 300m stretch of road in the Queens domain I decided to do an amateur-naturalist survey.

I took the road as an informal transect and count the number of grass genera that I could discern along that 300 m stretch, just on the side of the road I was walking.

I collected some of the grass and laid them out to photograph, as shown below.

Here are some of my results of the impromptu identifications, with the numbers corresponding to the genus identity of the grasses in the photograph:

1. Greater Quaking-grass (Briza maxima)

2. Lesser Quaking-grass (Briza minor)

3. Poa bulbosa

4. Sweetgrass (Glyceria sp.)

5. Silvery Hairgrass (Aira caryophyllea)

6. Poa sp.

7. Fescue (Festuca sp.)

8. Cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata)

9. Kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra)

10. Speargrass (Austrostipa sp.)

11. unknown sp.

12. Loose Plumegrass (Dichelachne inaequiglumis)

13. Rice millet (Piptatherum miliaceum)

14. Great Brome (Bromus diandrus)

15. Ratstail Fescue (Vulpia myuros)

16. Bearded Oat (Avena barbata)

17. Sweet Vernalgrass (Anthoxanthum odoratum)

Although only 17 species are featured in the photograph, there is not a shadow of doubt that I have missed quite a few species.

For example, there were definitely more than two species of Speargrass (Austrostipa) and a few other more genera that I had seen previously when walking along that road.

Nevertheless, just on the basis of what I have collected and laid out there are at least 14 genera of grasses, all just on one side of a 3oom stretch of road!

Such richness!

For a fan of biodiversity (weedy or not) and of grasses, a ramble around such a grassland in springtime is simply irresistible.

Prickly Box honey

October 23, 2009

Bursaria spinosa (Prickly Box)Go bush walking in any dry forest or heath in Tasmania and it is unlikely that one will miss spotting the Prickly Box (Bursaria spinosa). It is one of the most ubiquitous of Tasmania’s dry forest shrubs.

The Prickly Box is also an attractive plant with great potential for native gardening or bonsai-ing. While it is probably hard for those uninitiated in botany to guess what the Prickly Box might be related to, those with an eye for ornamentals might find the Prickly Box resembling Privets (Lingustrum spp.) or Box trees (Buxus spp.).

Surprisingly, however, the Prickly Box belongs to the Pittosporceae, making it a relative of the commonly cultivated Sweet Pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum).

Unobtrusively, this native shrub has made it’s way into health shops.

As part of a gradual move toward healthier living and eating, my partner and I visited one such health store in town, Goulds Naturopathica.

Whilst browsing through vials of essential oils and packets of herbal teas, we spotted a jar of honey on the shelves and the words “Prickly Box” caught my attention. We bought the jar on the spot.

Upon getting home, we wasted no time in trying our purchase. Plunging a teaspoon into the jar,  we were surprised at the consistency of the honey — it was hard like frozen butter.

Certainly not your average honey on which you can use a honey dipper!

I ate a small piece and I must say it is among the most fragrant of honeys I have ever tasted, way exceeding y expectations and better than some of the best leatherwood honey I’ve sampled.

With the spoonful of honey chunks she dug out, my partner made a mug of honey beverage and was duly impressed at the superb taste.

As the honey is organic (I don’t know of any Prickly Box plantations anyways), it’s a little pricey, but it is definitely worth trying!

Moss mania exhibition

October 22, 2009