Northern Australia has a tropical climate, while the southern coast is relatively cool and moist. A vast, arid desert covers the interior. Much of the continent is subject to brush fires, and many native plants, such as eucalyptus, have oils and resins in their aerial parts that encourage a rapid burning that leaves woody tissues and underground parts unharmed.
The early Aboriginal people of Australia were hunters and gatherers who traveled vast distances on foot. They are believed to have used more than 150 different herb species just for the treatment of inflamed wounds and eyes. To alleviate the hunger and fatigue of long journeys, they commonly chewed pituri, a substance made from nicotine-containing plants of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Gum from Eucalyptus species, produced by wounding the tree, was used to control infections, bleeding, and diarrhea. The native people also mixed herbal medicines to treat burns, headaches, digestive upsets, jellyfish and insect stings, and snakebites.
According to the Aboriginal belief system, many ailments and accidents were caused by spirits. Spiritual healers, both men and women, performed sacred rites using herbs to counteract the sorcery. Treatments included steam inhalation, sleeping pillows, and infusions. Many remedies were applied topically: A patient could be rubbed with crushed seed paste, fruit pulp, or sap. Newborn babies and new mothers were exposed to steam or rubbed with oils to give them strength.
Bush medicine focused on commonly found plants, such as the fuchsia bush (Eremophila spp.), the bloodwood tree (Corymbia terminalis), and lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.). Some medicines varied in strength with the seasons—for a toothache, the wet season growth of green plum leaves (Buchanania obovata) was considered a stronger remedy than the plant’s dry season growth.
In 1770, Captain James Cook (1728–1779) arrived and claimed Australia for the British crown. The land was established as a British penal colony, and for the next 80 years nearly 160,000 men and women were transported from England to Australia as convicts. The new arrivals brought with them a host of nonnative crops, from cereal grains to potatoes, onions, sugarcane, tobacco, and grapevines. The Europeans also named native plants after species the plants resembled in their homeland. Today, native or “bush” potatoes, bananas, cherries, pears, and plums unrelated to their European namesakes are found throughout Australia. These plants—intertwined with exotic imports and edible and medicinal plants cultivated by settlers—spread into the wild.
In all, at least 2,700 new plants were introduced in Australia, where they have now established populations. Some, such as arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), fleabane (Conyza spp.), and the ubiquitous lantana (Lantana camara), have become invasive weeds, spreading throughout the country and edging out indigenous species. Others, such as wild tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), were simply integrated by Aboriginal people into traditional medical practices.
The plant life of northern New Zealand resembles that of tropical southeastern Asia, while the country’s central regions have a temperate climate, and the southern zone is cool and wet. New Zealand’s first inhabitants were the Maori people, who are believed to have arrived from southeastern Asia around 1000 CE. They had an intricate healing system that centered on the tohunga, who was both doctor and spiritual leader. The tohunga administered herbal remedies, known as rongoa, that prevented and cured illnesses as well as spiritual rituals and vapor baths. Native species such as New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), now familiar as ornamental plants, were used to treat a wide range of ailments, including topical wounds.