Mayi -- Aboriginal Plant Food from the Dampier Peninsula, Western Australia

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Mayi

"Mayi" is the term used by Aboriginal people of the Dampier Peninsula - north of Broome and Derby in Western Australia - to mean plant food.
The following plants have been listed by the Bardi people who live at the very northern tip of the Dampier Peninsula and islands. In their description, they use the term "cook" to mean ripe.
Although most plants have been traced during our research in books listing Australian wild food plants, we have been unable to connect a couple of them to a scientific name. Please note that in two instances, plants considered toxic by the Bardi people are deemed edible by various sources, including other Aboriginal tribes.

Bush Onion - Cyperus Bulbosus or Niarlboon in Bardi

It grows in colonies in coastal sand dunes and looks like a garden weed. It shoots out at the end of the Wet season. The triangular stems are up to 40 cm tall and the seed spikes are reddish-brown. Its bulb is picked in April or May by digging with hands or short sticks from shallow sand, once the plant on the surface has withered when water levels recede. It then looks like a thin, yellow grass. The shiny, spindle-shaped tuber of 1-1.5 cm long is eaten raw or roasted in hot ashes. The skin can be removed by rubbing the bulb between hands.

Grey Mangrove - Avicennia marina or Ngoorrngool in Bardi

This very common grey barked mangrove tree forms a system with its network of roots protruding from the mud around mangroves, which filters salt water to take its minerals, in the process turning salt water into fresh water. These black, spike-like aerial roots are called pneumatophores because the plant breathes through them when exposed at low tide. The dark interior of this round green fruit is edible, although its preparation requires some experience. It needs to be gathered at low tide in March or April, wrapped in leaves and left there to soak for 3 days, to release its toxins which will bubble up to the top of the mud, colouring it purple. During this process, the fruit has turned black and has lost its tannins and bitterness. It is then washed before rubbing off its thin skin and boiled.

Kakadu Plum - Terminalia Fernandiana or Arrangor in Bardi

Found behind beaches, this big deciduous tree has rough, flaky grey bark and large, blunt-tipped leaves. It grows little ovoid fruits during the Wet in January March which are "cook" in June or July, when they turn pale white and become soft. The early ones can be picked in the trees but they are mostly picked when fallen on the ground. They contain a large, woody stone. This sour holds the highest vitamin content known in the world, 60 times that of the orange. Some of them are reportedly collected to be shipped to the U.S. where they are dried and included in power-bars and other foods especially prepared for the astronauts. Bark can be used to cure skin sores and relieves itching from insect bites or heat rashes when thinly chopped then boiled until water turns red. This liquid is best applied on skin when still slightly warm.

Billygoat plum - Terminalia Petiolaris or Marool in Bardi and its gum is Koomb

This tree growing in the scrublands has a rough grey bark. It has two flowering periods, November and May. Its ovoid shaped fruit turns from hard and green to soft and dark purple when it is "cook" and ready to be collected from the tree. Same family as the Kakadu plum it is also exceptionally rich in Vitamin C. Underneath a thin layer of flesh is a rather big hard woody stone. Its pale almost tasteless gum which oozes from the trunk is called Koomb is also edible raw or cooked, either boiled with sugar or roasted on hot coals. Bark can be used to cure skin sores and relieves itching from insect bites or heat rashes when thinly chopped then boiled until water turns red. This liquid is best applied on skin when still slightly warm.

Milky Plum - Persoonia Falcata or in Bardi Kamaloon when on the tree, Wiirma when on the ground

This tall shrub with sickle-shaped leaves can be up to 10-20 cm long. Its yellow flowers have 4 slender arched petals. Fruit can be picked during the Wet from January to March, after it has turned from green to yellow. Its shape, rubbery skin and large single seed are fairly similar to a mango except much smaller, with a stalk-like style at the tip. Its fibrous inside is sucked directly in the mouth. When the fruit turns black and shriveled on the ground, it can still be collected to be eaten after pounding and soaking it in water, then adding bush honey or sugar.

Plum Bush or sandalwood - Santalum Lanceolatum or Bilaloor in Bardi

This extremely hard, fragrant wood with lazy drooping branches with blue-grey foliage can be found behind beaches. Its small cream-coloured flowers appear in January-November. It fruits twice a year in January to March during the Wet then again in May to June. The size of a small plum, disc-shaped at the tip its fruit turns a purplish-black colour when "cook". They have a high Vitamin C content. This wood and leaves are smoked to keep the insects away and also in the Bardi people smoke rituals for the sick. Its bark can also be boiled into a lotion to clean open wounds and sores.

Bush Banana - Mardsenia Viridiflora or Kookookoonarr in Bardi

Twining over host trees, shrubs and fences or even on the ground, these wiry vines have slender opposite leaves which ooze milky sap when plucked - often a sign of a poisonous plant. Therefore, care should be taken not to confuse this vine with other, poisonous kinds... Their small greenish yellow flowers appear in clusters in November-December and are followed by greenish drooping pods up to 8 cm long which, when they split, release fluffy wind-borne green seeds. The pods can be eaten whole, skin, pulp and seeds and are best collected young during the Wet, before it hardens, when they taste like baby squash or zucchini. Later on, it can still be baked in hot ashes. They are particularly rich in thiamine.

White Berry Bush - Flueggea Virosa or Koorralkar in Bardi

This big shrub growing 1-2.5 m (securinega melanthesoides) is found in hollows behind beaches. Leaves are oval, paler below with a finely crinkled surface. White sweet-smelling flowers appear in December, its fruits in January. Its little berries 5-10 mm across are white and soft when they are "cook" and contain 3 or 4 small seeds. The gum is also edible. The fruit can be pounded then soaked in water to make an acidic drink. Bark can be used to cure skin sores and relieves itching from insect bites or heat rashes when thinly chopped then boiled until water turns red. This liquid is best applied on skin when still slightly warm. This wood is also used for fire making, which is called "Kalib" in Bardi, by rubbing one piece of wood against another or by twisting one stick in a socket made in the other.

Cockle or Conker Berry - Carissa Lanceolata or Koongkoora in Bardi

This prickly shrub has slender grey-greenish leaves develops small berries which turn from hard and green with a milky sap to soft, reddish black and sweet-smelling when "cook". The smoke from this wood is a good insect repellent, while the leaves are also used as a smoke medicine. The green leaves and the wood of this tree were often burnt together with Pindan wattle - acacia tumida -

Devil's Twine berry - Cassytha filiformis or Jirrawany in Bardi

This vine grows on beach areas and covers its host tree like a net with stems 1-2 mm thick. A parasitic plant, it penetrate its host stems to draw away nutrients. After germinating and attaching to a host, it loses all contact with the ground. It bears tiny green bitter berries between March and May which, when they are "cook", turn sticky, sweet and slightly transparent, pearl-like. The Bardi used to catch fish with it, using it as a net.

Sandpaper Fig - Ficus Opposita or Ranyja in Bardi

This sprawling shrub grows around beaches. Its fruit turns blackish purple like a fig and very soft in March or April when it is "cook". The Bardi traditionally used the oval, rough leaves of this small tree as sandpaper to polish tools and also in medicine, by applying hot leaves to treat rheumatism or bruises.

Breadfruit - Pandanus Spiralis or Idool in Bardi, the fruit is called Kaamba

This palm-tree, very common in Bardi country, has very long leathery serrated-edged leaves and a spirally patterned trunk. It grows in clusters of hard woody wedges of 8 to 20 between January and March. 5-10 cm long, they turn red-orange in June when they are "cook" and picked from the tree or collected on the ground. It is roasted in hot ashes to make it brittle then split in two to extract a few slender kernels inside. These seeds can be eaten as such or roasted in hot ashes to enhance their nutty flavour. They are very nutritious, with a very high content in fat and protein. The Bardi also used it to weave shoes with its leaves in the old days.

Bloodwood Apple, Desert Apple or Bush Coconut - Eucalyptus terminalis and polycarpa or Dordor in Bardi

This large woody gall is named Kardgu when developed on inland bloodwood (eucalyptus terminalis ) and Kadka, on long-fruited bloodwood (eucalyptus polycarpa). Whitish grey in colour, it has a woody aspect like a nut but in reality develops when the green fruit bud of these trees are infested by the larvae of a small fly. The worm living within the larval flies contributes to the formation of the galls. Inside this nut-like formation is a layer of flesh a bit like coconut flesh surrounding a sac of sweet fluid and the larvae. Dordor is considered a delicacy but is edible only when the worm is still inside, which can be spotted by the eye which appears in the hollowed area at the bottom of the gall. In such case, the gale has a pale color and the grub inside is soft, while the gall is dark brown and brittle when the bug has left. The cream-coloured, scented flowers of this tree appear in clusters April to June.

Sugar Leaf or Sugar Bread, or Koorjorr in Bardi

This manna develops in June or July on the leaves of the same hosts as above, inland bloodwood (eucalyptus terminalis) and long fruited bloodwood (eucalyptus polycarpa). It is caused by a small insect from the psyllidae family called hemiptera, and these waxy white protective tests are called lerp. It is made with the sap extracted from the tree and excreted by the bug into a sort of crystallized sugar. This substance is collected from branches, broken off then put to dry for a few days, before being shaken off onto a canvas which has replaced the paperback sheets used traditionally and rolled into a ball.

Bush Honey or Sugar Bag - Moonga in Bardi. Bee is Moonga Jooroo

The Australian honeybee is much smaller than the European one and does not sting. Honey is found by following them to their nest which can be chopped off to get inside. It can also be found in a small opening inside several types of tree, among them paperbark tree, inland bloodwood (eucalyptus terminalis) or Bauhinia tree (bauhinia cunninghamii). Hives of bee honey are often found inside trunks. There are "false holes" and "true holes" which have an entrance made of a small wax tube and through which bees can be heard inside. Besides honey, the sugarbag also provides two other edible parts: the yellow pollen-cake is called lakoor - egg - in Bardi and the fine soft wax in which honey in enclosed in tiny bags. This wax is also a medicinal treatment for sores when applied warm. It is also used to plug small leaks or cement bindings, for instance of spear tips to their shafts. A paste made from fresh leaves of this tree is used to relieve burns. Its red/maroon flowers appear in April to October and are also sucked for their honey.

Kurrajong - Brachychiton diversifolius or Korrkorr in Bardi

This is a tree with big, smooth, heart-shaped leaves. It flowers from May to July then seed pods appear in summer, between August and November. They are picked either when green or when they turn dark and dry and then split open. The seeds inside are bright yellow and covered with fine hair. Once carefully cleaned from their irritating yellow hair and roasted, they have a pleasant nutty flavour. These seeds are remarkably nutritious, comprising protein, fat and high levels of zinc and magnesium. The swollen roots can also be eaten as a potato when pulled out from young trees of approximately 50 cm high then baked into hot ashes, usually during the Wet season between January and March.

Strap wattle or soap bush - acacia holosericea or acacia colei - Lomoorrkoodkood in Bardi

Its sticky green pods, once wetted and rubbed or crushed together produce a soapy lather for washing. The Bardi consider this shrub poisonous, although its green pods are eaten roasted and its seeds ground for flour or a paste by other tribes.
It has slender elliptic leaves with a silky texture and a bluish green colour. Its golden cylindrical flowers appear in clusters from June to September. Its seeds are produced in rows of long green pods between September and November. The pods turn dark brown when they dry and often remain hanging on the shrub in a tangle after their seeds have fallen off.
Note: More than 950 species of acacia are native to Australia, out of the 1300 or so worldwide. In Western Australia alone, more than 600 species are represented.

Pindan or Spear Wattle - acacia tumida - wangai in Bardi

Is a different variety of acacia, the one shown on this photo, is called "wangai" in Bardi. This wood is good to make spears with. Its yellow cylindrical flowers during the winter months, April to August. Its flat green pods, which appear at the end of August are edible. They can be cooked in hot ashes and eaten as such or into hot sand to eat the seeds inside. In the past, these seeds were pounded into a powder and eaten as a paste. This tree also gives "bush bubble-gum", called "nieliniel" in Bardi. It was often burnt together with Conker berry - Carissa Lanceolata - to keep mosquitoes away and to make newborns strong.

Kangaroo Apple - Solanum cunninghamii or Lankoorr in Bardi as commonly called

Another one regarded as poisonous by the Bardi but not by others, this shrub grows in dense patches. It has pale green narrow leaves and bears flowers formed of five purplish joined petals with yellow stamens at the centre. It has sharp thorns on its ovaries, calyces and russet stems which also bear fine hair. It and has a strong sweet smell when the fruit develops and swells out of its thorny protective calyx and turns a whitish yellow.

Pouteria Sericea or Mangarr in Bardi

This apparently very local bushy tree develops an oblong shaped fruit in March or April which turns from green to black when "cook". Around a fairly big seed is a rather thin layer of flesh which tastes like plum once it has dried.

Gardenia Pyriformis or Dalwarr in Bardi

This seems to be another plant rather specific to the area. The Bardi people use the leaves from this small tree to harden their feet against cuts and stings by rubbing their soles with them on a stone. A slightly different variety, called Gullai in Bardi also grows in the area and is the one shown on the photo. Its small white flowers turn in June into a yellow ribbed fruit ended with long divided sepals. This hard-skinned fruit contains flesh which can be squeezed out of its numerous seeds to be eaten. It is also a "chewing-gum". Boiled into an infusion, it is a medicine drunk to cure colds or applied on the skin to treat sores and aches.
Important note: We do not recommend eating plant foods unless under appropriate supervision. We do not endorse any responsibility or liability for any injury or discomfort linked to the consumption and/or use of the above plants and or leaves and/or fruits and/or barks and/or roots.