… and no: I’m not swearing at you! Nor am I saying: “Bless you!” in another person’s language and – you’ll be pleased to know – you won’t need a ‘standby toilet’ as any part of your daily routine!
Xanthorrhoea preissii is actually what I’m on about here. A very distinctive Australian plant – native to South West, Western Australia. You might find yourself calling it a Balga, or a perhaps you call it a Grass Tree. You might even refer to it as a Blackboy: a name used for many years, said to originate with the settlers who came into this area, as they reckoned it looked like a ‘native’ in the bush, with his spear.
Over the last ten plus years, the term ‘Grass Tree’ has made an appearance. Those who’re are mindful of such things prefer to call this tree a Balga, as this is the name given to the plant by those who originally inhabited these lands in this region – the Bibbulmun Peoples (or as more commonly referred to as the Nyoongar Peoples). To give you an idea of what was considered Bibbulmun Country – get yourself a map of Western Australia and draw a line from Geraldton on the west coast, to Esperance on the south coast – everything ‘sea-ward’ of that line is considered the country associated with the Bibbulmun Peoples.
The Balga had so many uses as a plant, it would boggle your mind to look at it! If there was a ‘gaffa-tape’ equivalent in the world of Australian flora – it’s my firm opinion that the Xanthorrhoea would be it! This plant could provide shelter from the rain for one thing. It’s dry leaves could provide matting and it’s dried flower stalk was said to be used as a fishing spear shaft because it could float. This same flower stalk these days is dried and used as bush walking stick as well – so it’s lightweight strength is still evident today.
The Balga could also act as a very reliable food source. Directly it provided the tender white part located on the base of the of each leaf as a starchy snack and, if you soaked the flowering stalk in water, it could provide a high energy ‘sugary’ drink in an environment where such thing would have been sorely needed. Indirectly it also attracts all manner of other critters to it’s otherwise bristly countenance, as it provided a home for those insect larvae that sheltered inside it’s trunk and root system, and under it’s dry leaves next the the trunk – this space could shelter all manners of critters from snakes and lizards, to bats and small birds.
However, it was the Balga’s resin and its dried flower stalk that had it stand out from the rest of the plants around them. The resin from this tree could be ground down very easily and when it was then mixed with crushed dried kangaroo dung and ground charcoal it formed an amazingly strong ‘glue’ that could fix stone axe-heads into the bent bark or timber ‘strapping’ that formed the handle for such a tool. It fixed spear heads onto spear shafts, plugged holes in containers and formed a protective ‘grip’ around a whole range of other tools needed for more applications than you or I could count. It was amazingly versatile, could be hand-moulded on the spot and have you up and attending to you business in a matter of moments.
The flower stalks when dry though, probably tipped the balance for the Balga. Take a section of one large, dry, stalk notch it and lay it down and you have the base material needed to make fire through friction. This part of the grass tree is soft and pulpy as it drys and a smaller – but longer – grasstree stalk or a similar slim and straight hardwood branch would be sharpened at one end and its tip placed into the notch on the other bit of wood.
Rolling this back and forth between your palms at speed would eventually produce an ember from friction. Have this whole set-up sitting over some dry tinder as you work it back and forth with a steady hand (not to mention a steady breathe of air from your mouth) and you could eventually tease out that much needed flame, to make your fire.
The ability to shape tools further; straighten wooden spear shafts, bend axe-handles, crack rocks – all became easier through the use of fire. Fire could drive critters out of the scrub where they could be ambushed for food. Fire kicked of the processes that brought about the bright green re-growth and the and shooting of seeds in it’s blackened aftermath. Fire provided warmth; the ability to cook a wider variety of food; and possible protection against out of control bush fires. The discovery of how to make your own fire and control it gave our first peoples the most important (and environmentally influential) tool in their landscaping toolbox: Indigenous peoples all over Australia burned huge areas of land to hunt and ‘train’ the country about them.
I’ll leave you with this one thought the next time you see a Balga tree one taller than yourself: on average it’s said that these plants grow at a rate of about one to two centremetres a year, depending on how good a season they have. This applies to a plant that has only one head. Wherever a Balga plant splits and forms a fork – this rate halves. Where you have three heads – it cuts the rate of growth for each to a third (or thereabouts) and so on it goes.
If your looking on a Balga tree that is nearly two metres tall and has multiple heads upon it – your potentially looking upon a tree that is over two hundred years old and could very well be very much older. I once was lucky enough to be in the presence of one huge Balga that was rescued from the ongoing land clearing that takes place around Perth and it was estimated that this plant was over three hundred to perhaps four hundred years old!
You have ancient ‘beings’ surrounding you people and you don’t even have to crane your neck to look at just the tall timber in this part of our state to appreciate this. I reckon that’s pretty spinny – just quietly!
PS – Go and check the work that Bruce and his dedicated crew does at rePlants (Wray Avenue in Fremantle if you’re wondering) in rescuing Balga’s from our ongoing urban sprawl! ‘Goodonya’ Bruce – you’re a champ mate – love your work!
Belongum – Out!