Finding the Murnong
by Isabel Stewart and Lea Stevens
I first encountered the Murnong, or Plains Yam Daisy, on a frigid Melbourne day on the banks of the Merri Creek. I had driven there for a weeding session with some volunteers, but I got out of the car reluctantly.
The wind was howling, and I worried that the branches in the trees above might fall on my head. Standing at the assigned meeting place, I couldn’t see a soul, until my eyes finally rested upon a small woman crouching among the shrubbery. Her name was Pascale.
Pascale Pitot is a creek volunteer with an incredible amount of knowledge on the history of Merri Creek—knowledge of its plants and of its original inhabitants. I was given a tool for weeding and put to work immediately.
To the untrained eye, the Murnong looks like any other patch of grass. Its long, thin green leaves fade into their surroundings, making this extraordinary plant easy to miss.
For those who know what they are looking for, the Murnong can be identified by its protruding spine and the toothed edges on its leaves. The body of the Murnong grows underground; deep under the surface lie tuberous roots which were once an important part of the diet of Aboriginal people living on the land.
When spring arrives the Murnong will flower, signalling the arrival of harvest time. In full bloom, its distinctive yellow flower makes it easier to spot, and it is this flower that many Australians will be familiar with.
While we weeded, Pascale told me about the various plants and their uses; knowledge that had been passed on to her by other volunteers. She spoke of the Merri Creek community and the people who are involved in maintaining the health of the surrounding area.
It is a common misconception that Aboriginal people acted only as hunter-gatherers, moving from place to place with little management of their environment. Pascale informed me that, contrary to this, strong evidence suggests Aboriginal people were much more sophisticated in their farming and agricultural practices than Australians have long thought.
Our conversation shifted to the Murnong, or Yam Daisy. Sadly, only small patches of the plant exist today and many of these areas are carefully cultivated and protected by dedicated volunteers; the Murnong is not as abundant as it once was.
A Long History
Early reports of the Murnong come from colonial times, when the plant flourished. Upon arrival to Australia, settlers were met with fields of Murnong, so prevalent that it was said to be in its millions.
A settler’s diary from 1835 includes one of the first recorded mentions of the plant, described as ‘murning—a root eaten by the native’. Seventeen years later another settler claimed that ‘a man may live on the root for weeks together.' This plant had been feeding communities for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Settler reports are the only resources on the Murnong existing from that period—Aboriginal perspectives were simply not recorded. However, modern research shows there were many names for the plant used by the different tribes: in the Wotjobaluk tribe it was known as moonya and it was called muurang in the Gunditjmara tribe.
The plant is mostly referred to as Murnong, a name used by the Wurundjeri tribe who belong to the area encompassing the inner city of Melbourne and surrounding suburbs. It was here, in southern Victoria, that the Murnong thrived.
Collecting the plant was done using a ‘digging-stick’ or ‘yam-stick’ to dig up the tuberous roots. This task was primarily performed by women, though even children could easily dig out the plant because of its shallow depth underground. By only taking the fleshy tuber of the plant, the remaining root could be re-buried and later re-harvested.
Unlike Western practices of farming which leave crops and soil devastated, the farming of plants such as the Murnong by Aboriginal people encouraged healthy land. The constant act of digging and turning over earth loosened and aerated the soil, leaving it in a better condition than before.
However, the colonisation of Australia brought more than just settlers—cattle were transported too, and the grazing of these introduced animals diminished the abundance of the Murnong. Fields of the plant turned to trodden land and eventually cities and roads took over the natural environment, making it almost impossible for the Murnong to survive.
Several hundred years ago, where our city and homes now reside, Aboriginal women were digging in fields of Murnong. Lifting each plant from the ground, collecting its roots and returning it to the soil to regrow. Remembering the tiny patch of Murnong I weeded with Pascale, it is difficult to imagine the plant once covered acres of land.
Sustaining the Community
To find out more about the Murnong’s history and significance for Aboriginal people, I reached out to Dr Beth Gott, a prominent Australian botanist. Beth has been studying the Murnong—Microseris lanceolata—for decades.
‘Murnong was one of the important food plants being used when the Europeans arrived here in Victoria and people took notice of them. On the grasslands you had a very large number of Murnong growing and they all came out in daisy-like flowers at the same time’, she said.
I learned so much more from my meeting with Beth than I could have imagined. I went to the interview with a set of questions about the Murnong which I hoped would increase my knowledge of this plant and its history. What I actually gained was a deeper understanding of the Aboriginal people who harvested the plant.
Like Pascale, Beth agreed that the predominant stereotype of Aboriginal people before colonisation is that they were hunter-gatherers. Beth stressed just how unfair and inaccurate the stereotype is—these were people who had lived on the land for thousands of years and knew how to manage it sustainably.
‘Early reports of the Aboriginal people in Melbourne describe them as very healthy; men, six feet tall, well-muscled. These were obviously not people who had been on the edge of starvation and yet, many Europeans would say that because they weren’t eating what Europeans were eating, they must be suffering from lack of food’, she said.
The first Australians were so much more than hunter-gatherers and, despite European concern, were actually thriving on the land. Their harvesting of the Murnong proves that the stereotype isn't accurate—they didn't just consume it, but re-planted it to be used again.