Typha root: an ancient nutritious food in Noongar culture

Published: November, 2017

Prepared by Ken Macintyre and Barb Dobson
Research anthropologists

In our paper on bardi grubs we mooted the possibility that indigenous people of southwestern Australia practised the earliest known form of insect husbandry. It is not hard to imagine that these same people also practised a type of incipient agriculture, as noted by Grey (1841: 294) with his reference to the cultivation of yunjeedie or yunjid  – the thick starchy rhizomes of the Typha plant:

“the natives must be admitted to bestow a sort of cultivation upon this root, as they frequently burn the leaves of the plant in the dry season in order to improve it.”

The journey you are about to embark on began in 2007 after a great deal of ethnohistorical research, conversations with Noongar Elders and some amateur experimentation with Typha rhizomes.  The main challenge was in the ethnohistorical descriptions which were often vague and difficult to interpret and remarkably similar to one another. What we present to you in this paper may provide some insights into possibly one of the most ancient forms of plant carbohydrate used by humans.

Early ethno-historical sources

in 1834 George Fletcher Moore describes ‘a broad sort of flag’ that grows around the swamps of Perth and the Upper Swan.  He is referring to the bulrush or Typha that grew in abundance on the margins of freshwater lakes and swamps in southwestern Australia. When visiting Perth in 1837 James Backhouse refers to this broad-leaved bulrush as Typha latifolia (Latin, latus, meaning broad + folia, leaves).  However, Typha latifolia is not found in Western Australia so this is probably Typha orientalis.

‘The lagoons are much filled with the cat’s-tail reed (Typha latifolia), the root of which is eaten by the natives’ (Backhouse 1843:153). 

In January 1839 when Ludwig Preiss, a German-born British botanist, collected a Typha specimen from Perth, he described it as Typha schuttleworthii. This species is not found in Western Australia but is equated to T. orientalis. Lehman’s (1845) Plantae Preissana in Latin describes it as:

‘Typha schuttleworthii ‘In locis paludosis ad radices montis Elizamountain, Perth d. 19 Jan, 1839 Radicis partem interiorem Aborigines edunt’

The last part translates as ‘the Aborigines ate the interior (inner) part of the root.’ The specimen was obtained from near the base of Mt Eliza, Kings Park. Since Typha is a signature plant of freshwater wetland habitats – springs, streams, lakes, swamps and rivers – it must have been sourced from a freshwater stream or spring, possibly the same freshwater source located by Dr T.B. Wilson in October 1829 when descending Mt Eliza:

‘…in descending the hill, found a fine stream of pure water, which we regretted had not been discovered earlier, as we should not have been under the necessity of using the water of the river, which, from being brackish, was not very palatable.’ (Wilson October 1829 in Shoobert 2005: 95)

It is difficult for us to picture the many Typha swamps and lakes as they existed in pre-colonial times in the Perth and surrounding districts when they were carefully managed by indigenous cultivation and fire regimes. Today Typha is regarded almost as a weed that congests our waterways and is usually controlled by chemical herbicides.

Reconstructed view of Perth in 1827 (looking west from the Claise Brook entry to the Swan River across the lakes of central Perth). Copyright: Edith Cowan University 2014. Reimagining Perth’s Lost Wetlands. (2014). http://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/wetlands
Figure 2: The Great Lakes of Perth  – A reproduction of map by A. Hillman and J.S. Roe 1838 showing wetlands that existed with superimposed geometric road grid over the new Townsite of Perth. Source: Perth Water Wikipedia (original image held by State Library of Western Australia (BA1961/14).
typha swamp 5
Star Swamp: Typha (bulrush) and Melaleuca (paperbark) seasonal swamps were common in Perth and the Swan Coastal Plain. Photo by Barb Dobson

Two WA Typha species

There are two native species of Typha found in Western Australia: Typha domingensis and Typha orientalis. Typha orientalis was formerly considered by the Western Australian Florabase to be an introduced species and was classified as naturalised in Western Australia but it is now recognised by this authority on Western Australian flora as being native to WA.  Florabse lists cumbungi as one of its alternate names but this term derives from an Eastern Australian Aboriginal language.  Its local Noongar name is yanjet (yanjidi or other variant spellings).  Florabase also provides detailed instructions on how to eradicate T. orientalis using the chemical spray Roundup because Typha can be an aggressive coloniser if not managed properly.1

Typha orientalis (top)Typha domingensis (bottom)
Typha orientalis (top) and Typha domingensis (bottom) – the starchy rhizomes of both were eaten by Noongar people. Photo by Ken Macintyre, Toodyay 2008.

Early ethnohistorical accounts refer to both the broad-leaved and narrow-leaved Typha species found in southwestern Australia. Moore’s description in 1834 refers to ‘a broad sort of flag’ the roots of which were eaten by Noongar people. Backhouse in 1837 refers to Typha in the swamps around Perth as being broad-leaved (T. latifolia). Lieutenant George Grey (1841: 292) notes that Aborigines ate the roots of two species of Typha.2

Drummond (1836) shows a degree of ambivalence to Brown’s species classification of Typha when he remarks that:

‘…it is described with a mark of doubt in Brown New Holland Plants as Typha angustifolia of Linnaeus, but it is a very different species; the roots in particular are different: they are thick and succulent and contain a large portion of starch and mucilage.’ (Drummond 1836)

We wonder why Drummond, the colonial botanist, if he believed it was a different species, did not follow this up.  He does not mention distinguishing Linnaean factors but comments on the thick and succulent rhizomes. Could these have been the result of indigenous firing and continuous cultivation over many thousands of years?

How relevant is a European-derived plant classificatory system to traditional hunter-gather-cultivator society?

We would question the cultural appropriateness of a European-derived Linnaean classificatory system, with its obsession on above-ground plant morphology, that describes the minutiae of leaf, flower, seed and stem anatomy. These criteria are hardly relevant to a hungry hunter-gatherer-fisher-cultivator people who consumed the underground storage organs of plants – tubers, bulbs, rhizomes and corms (often loosely referred to as “roots”) of which the thick nutritious rhizomes of yanjidee (Typha) were one such favoured food.

As we have pointed out elsewhere, the Noongar like other Aboriginal Australian groups had evolved their own logical, independent, highly practical and utilitarian-based plant classificatory system thousands of years before Europeans arrived on their shores. Aboriginal people were more interested in the utilitarian value of plants and their products (for purposes of food, medicine, tools, shelter, ornaments etc), where they were found, how and when they were procured and prepared, rather than the minor morphological variations of the Linnaean system. Some Noongar plant descriptors were symbolic, totemic and mythological or in some cases represented body part or function metaphors.

Typha root before processing
Raw starch-bearing Typha rhizome before processing. Photo by Barb Dobson, Toodyay 2008

Typha rhizomes – a favoured seasonal starch staple

Our interpretations in this paper are based on an examination of early ethnohistorical accounts together with some contemporary Noongar Elders’ views and our own anthropological analysis to try and reach an understanding of Typha useage in traditional Noongar culture.  Most of the early colonial observations were fleeting and vague and difficult to interpret from an anthropological perspective.  For example, Moore states:

‘Got from the natives a piece of bread made of the root of the flag which they called yandyett. It tastes like a cake of oatmeal.’ (Moore 1834)

‘The natives dig the roots up, clean them, roast them, and then pound them into a mass, which, when kneaded and made into a cake, tastes like flour not separated from the bran.’  (Moore 1842)

With the exception of Moore’s chance encounter one evening (1834) when visiting an Aboriginal camp within the vicinity of his property at Millendon in the Upper Swan, we would suggest that many of the early ethnohistorical accounts of food preparation relied on indigenous male informant descriptions or the standardised colonial hearsay derived from  accounts reported in the local newspapers, such as the Swan River GuardianPerth Gazette and Inquirer. Explorers’ accounts from other parts of Australia (such as those of Mitchell and Eyre) that were published in the popular colonial newspapers of the day also contributed to this collective pool of hearsay.

Another salient factor rarely considered when interpreting 19th century descriptions of Noongar food processing is that these practices were performed exclusively by women and white male observers, especially in the early days of colonisation, would not have been privy to the intricacies of these food processing rituals. This makes us wonder to what extent all of these factors may have coloured the descriptions of what we now consider to be the science of ethnobotany.

Let us examine some of the early descriptions of Typha root usage provided by Moore (1834, 1842), Drummond (1836) and Grey (1840, 1842) and maybe with  contemporary Noongar input and a bit of anthropological imagination we can build a picture of how Typha was cultivated and managed in pre-colonial times together with the methods used to convert it into a nutritious food source.

Lieutenant George Grey is by far the most popular and influential of the colonial writers. His work even to this day is much quoted by researchers. Grey (1840) describes Typha, or what the Aborigines call yunjeedie or yunjid as follows:

‘Yun-jee-die, or Yun-jid: a species of typha, the root of a sort of flag growing along the edges of fresh water pools and streams. It consists of many tender filaments, with nodules of farinaceous matter adhering to them. The natives dig up these roots, clean and roast them, and then extract the farinaceous matter. The best season for eating this root is in the months of April and May, when they are found in places where water stood in the winter, but which are now dry. Under these circumstances, the leaves of the flags have generally been burned off by the fires, which the natives say improves the roots.’ (Grey 1840: 139)

Moore (1842: 81) mirroring Grey’s description and revising his own spelling of yandyett (1834) to yanjidi writes:  

‘An edible root of a species of flag (Typha angustifolia) growing along fresh-water streams and the banks of pools. It consists of many tender filaments with layers of a farinaceous substance between. The natives dig the roots up, clean them, roast them, and then pound them into a mass, which, when kneaded and made into a cake, tastes like flour not separated from the bran. This root is in season in April and May, when the broad leaves will have been burned by the summer fires, by which the taste, according to native ideas, is improved.’ (Moore 1842: 81)

Typha sp. 2
Typha sp. growing on the margin of a swamp,Toodyay. Photo by Barb Dobson

What interests us is that in 1836 Drummond announces that he has located Typha in a freshwater stream in the Toodyay Valley. We are unsure as to why he had not previously described this commonly occurring bulrush. Was it too common around the swamps, lakes and rivers of Perth to be considered worthy of his attention? When he does acknowledge the importance of Typha as an indigenous food, his account reads as follows:

‘The cat’s tail, or reed mace, – the plant described by Mr Moore as a sort of flag or sedge,- grows in abundance in the bed of the stream. This plant is of great importance to the natives, as furnishing a great portion of the food of their women and children, for several months in the year…. [the roots] are thick and succulent, and contain a large portion of starch and mucilage.  It may be worth the white man’s knowing, that when any of them are so unfortunate as to be lost in the bush, they need not suffer much from hunger, by using this plant as the natives do; it generally abounds near water.’ (Drummond 7th May 1836 in Hercock et al 2011: 19; also in Perth Gazette 28th May 1836).

Drummond’s advice on survival lacks any description on how this valuable life-saving starch was extracted and made edible. In a later publication he records the Noongar name for Typha as yandyait, the same name recorded by Moore in one of his early publications. Drummond writes:

‘A species of Typha allied to Angustifolia of Linnaeus but larger in all its parts, and the spike of the flowers of a lighter brown colour, called by the Natives Yandyait; the roots abound with starch, and are compared by them in their nourishing properties to bread.’ (Drummond 1837: 257 Swan River Guardian).

Typha 1
Typha sp. bordering swampland at Toodyay. Photo by Ken Macintyre

By 1842 both Drummond and Moore were vying for notoriety in their respective newspaper articles on their knowledge of indigenous culture. Drummond describes the large annual gatherings involving Noongar feasting on Typha rhizomes at a farm in what is now Belmont. He writes:

‘This plant is an important one to the natives, as it furnishes them, at one season of the year, with a large portion of their food. When the white men first settled in this colony, the natives of the Canning, Upper Swan, Lower Swan, and Perth districts, were in the habit of meeting annually in the autumn, in the vicinity of a swamp on Grove Farm [Belmont area] now the property of Mr. John Hardy; these meetings lasted for several days, and I observed that on these occasions they principally fed upon the roots of the Typha, which they call yandyait. They strip off the outer covering of the long creeping roots. Reserving the pith, which contains a large quantity of starch; they generally cut the roots into convenient lengths, and roast them in the ashes, and chew the whole, spitting out the fibry parts; but sometimes they split up the roots, collect the starch in their cloaks, and bake it into cakes. The plant is abundant in our lakes and rivers, but it is only in the autumn months, when the plant is in a state of rest, that it contains much starch in the roots.’ (Drummond 1842)

 The Typha season in southwestern Australia

Drummond notes that Typha roots were used to feed large gatherings that took place annually in autumn. Although he claims to have observed these meetings which lasted for several days, he does not provide any ethnographic or other details. Such occasions would have involved social, ceremonial and ritual exchange activities. Also autumn, especially April, was a time of plenty when protein and fat rich foods such as fish, frogs, turtles, jilgies and by-yu (Macrozamia sarcotesta) were consumed.  This time of year was the start of djeran – a preparatory time for building up body condition and subcutaneous fat in readiness for the long cold wet lean season.

Drummond (1842) describes two methods of consuming yandyait but the second technique is vague and confusing and lacks any scientific detail, especially if one were to try to replicate his instructions. It is unclear as to whether he is referring to the splitting of cooked or raw Typha rhizomes.

Typha domingensis rhizomes jpg
Typha domingensis raw rhizome. Photo by Ken Macintyre.
Cross-section of Typha rhizome showing starch content
Cross-section of a raw Typha rhizome with iodine stain to show starch content before processing, March 2008.2 Photo by Ken Macintyre

It is possible that Drummond may have been referring to the extraction of a Typha meal from the pith of raw rhizomes. We attempted to do this by crushing, scraping and drying a rhizome and managed to extract a small quantity of coarse fibrous flour-like granules that could have been further refined by grinding (and removing the fine fibrous matter) for use as a baking flour.  This would have been a very time-consuming and laborious method of obtaining flour but we cannot rule out this possible means of survival.

Drummond (1842) seems adamant that the timing of Typha harvesting was critical in order to obtain the optimal starch content in the rhizome. He emphasises that Typha roots were only nutritious during autumn. This is consistent with Grey (1840) and Moore’s (1842) view that April and May were the best months to consume it.

But was it starch that Drummond was referring to here? Or was there some other essential nutrient in the rhizome composition and taste? According to a Polish scientific study conducted by Kurzawska et al (2014: 2) starch is not the only nutritious substance found in Typha rhizome. It also contains a wide range of saccharides including ‘glucose, galactose, xylose, mannose, glucuronic and galacturonic acid, arabinose, ribose, fucose, rhamnose and fructose.’ This Polish study contradicts Drummond’s assumption by stating that the starch ratio does not vary at different seasons.

‘The starch content is constant throughout the year; however, the water-soluble saccharides vary considerably.’ (Kuzawska et al (2014:2)

We think it was the sweet seasonal starch that was the motivation behind the traditional Noongar harvest of Typha in the autumn season. It may also explain the enigmatic sweetness of the Typha cakes consumed by Major Sir Thomas Mitchell in April 1836 when exploring the Lachlan River of New South Wales. Maiden (1917) cites Mitchell’s comments as follows:

‘Balyan ” (Typha angustifolia ?) – The principal food of the inhabitants of the Kalaire, or Lachlan, appeared to be ‘ balyan,’ the rhizome of a monocotyledonous plant or bulrush growing amongst the reeds. It contains so much gluten, that one of our party, Charles Webb, made, in a short time, some excellent cakes of it; and they seemed to me lighter and sweeter than those prepared from common flour….’ (Mitchell 24th April 1839 in Maiden 1917)

We were not surprised to find that Noongar people collected the starchy substance from Typha rhizome at the time of its peak sweetness. This fits well into their summer/ autumn food sweetness cycle which included a wide range of flower nectars, gums and root bark which were highly valued energy foods.  When we talk about the sweetness of Typha starch, we imagine that it would be similar to other plant sugars and of a mild intensity compared to that of refined cane sugar. See our papers on Indigenous Root Bark http://anthropologyfromtheshed.com/project/root-bark-eating-in-southwestern-australia/ and The Sweet Gum http://anthropologyfromtheshed.com/project/the-sweet-gum-a-nyungar-confection/

Did Noongar people consume the Typha rhizomes outside the March- April- May season?

We think they did, especially in times of drought or seasonal food shortages. Madden (1848) who was the Colonial Secretary of Western Australia and part-time anthropologist and anti-slavery campaigner, describes in his own handwriting, some of which we have transcribed that:

‘Yanjat – the flag root eaten by the natives. They lived the greater part of the summer upon this food. It is a fibrous root, one or two feet in length containing layers of a beautiful meal.’

We suspect that he is probably referring here to late summer at which time the Typha rhizomes would have contained sufficient starch and sugars. Small family groups subsisting on their local yanjet grounds may have systematically harvested Typha over a period of months.

Eyre (1841) and his Aboriginal guide Wylie, while travelling through the Cape Arid region near Esperance towards Albany survived on the root of ‘the broad flag-reed’ (Typha) which they consumed on several occasions between 31st May and 19th June. This was just prior to the wet season. Eyre states that he much preferred the taste of flag root to the taste of grubs which Wylie procured for himself from the Xanthorrhoea or grass tree.  Eyre describes how they both ate roasted Typha for breakfast and dinner:

‘The root is roasted in hot ashes, and chewed, when it affords a nutritious and pleasant farinaceous food.’

Reading the journals of the early explorers such as Mitchell (1839), Eyre (1840-1841) and Grey (1841), it is easy to get the impression that Typha root could be consumed over a prolonged period up until the wet season.  However, they all refer to the proper Typha season as being when the plant is in senescence and we would suggest at this time also high in sugar content.

Hallam (1989) for some unknown reason prolongs the Typha season suggesting that it formed ‘a basic staple throughout the winter until the Yam, Dioscorea hastifolia, became available in spring (Gott 1999 cites Hallam 1989:141). It is unclear on what evidence this view is based for the inclement southwestern Australian winter which caused lowland swamps and floodplains of rivers to be inundated was a necessitating factor in the seasonal movement of Noongar people to the higher ground further inland every year. We find it hard to imagine that they would be digging Typha roots on the emergent zones of rivers and swamps during the wet season makuru (or maggoro) when the Typha beds would have been partially submerged.

Traditional wanna cultivation

Typha rhizomes were procured by Noongar women using wanna (“digging stick”) technology. According to George Fletcher Moore’s (1834) diary entries, harvesting of this root occurred in late March and early April:

‘They are now busy digging the root of a broad sort of flag, which grows in a swamp near this. Some people say that this makes sago, or rather arrowroot. I must examine. It is tasteless to me, being fibrous and farinaceous.’ (Moore 29th March, 1834 in Cameron 2006: 317) 

Digging up yanyett rhizomes was a labour-intensive task, often commencing after the first autumn rains.  If the rains were late the Typha remained dormant and the digging season was delayed due to the impenetrability of the dry hardened clay topsoil. The first rains moistened the topsoil making it easier for women to dig out the rhizomes with their wooden wannas. Heavy rains sometimes delayed harvest due to flooding.

a wanna from Toodyay area
An old wooden wanna (digging stick) from the Toodyay area. Photo by Barb Dobson

The wanna was a long hardwood crowbar (with a fire hardened point) rounded on one side and flattened on the other. It was an indispensable tool – sometimes used as a weapon – that was individually manufactured, maintained and carried by its female user and even accompanied her to the grave (Nind 1831:47). Grey (1841:292-293) describes how Nyoongar women dug up roots using their wannas:

‘It is generally considered the province of women to dig roots, and for this purpose they carry a long pointed stick, which is held in the right hand, and driven firmly into the ground, where it is shaken, so as to loosen the earth, which is scooped up and thrown out with the fingers of the left hand, and in this manner they dig with great rapidity.’

Moore (1842: 24) records the Noongar name for digging:

dtanbarrang-ijow – to dig up; to dig out. A compound word, signifying literally, pierce (the ground), take (it; whatever is dug up, in your hand), put (it on one side), this being an exact description of the native style of digging.’

Typha rhizomes 2
Thick starchy horizontal Typha rhizome before peeling and processing,Toodyay. Photo by Ken Macintyre 2008.

Processing of Typha rhizomes by Noongar people

When we spoke to some elderly Noongar women and asked for their views on how Typha rhizomes would have been cooked, they said that they had never cooked Typha roots but would probably cook them by peeling them and then smashing the insides and cooking them damper-style in the ashes. First of all they would heat the ground using hot coals and ashes, make a round shallow hole in the heated ground, pour in the kneaded mixture and then cover with hot ashes to cook.  This was a similar method to how the traditional seed cake made from ground Acacia seeds known as kwonnart was cooked. The earth-oven baking technique is a traditional Aboriginal means of cooking processed seed and we would suggest that Typha flour was also baked in a similar fashion.

Roasting was an essential part of the indigenous preparation of Typha rhizomes. Austin, recalling his observations of the early 1840’s in the Bunbury region (recorded in Roth 1902:35), describes the bulrush root as being considered by the Aborigines as ‘very nourishing’ and that it was ‘most methodically slowly cooked in the ashes.’

But why, we ask, was it cooked slowly and methodically in the ashes?

We have found from experience in the preparation of other Noongar foods that there is never one reason but multiple reasons. Let us consider it from a scientific perspective.  Roasting helps to soften the tough fibrous starchy inner portion of the rhizome, making it easier to extract the starchy contents by chewing and/or pounding into a fibrous paste using grindstones. Further, it cooks the raw starch making it more readily digestible and diminishing any toxic and/or bitter compounds. As chewing was probably the most common method of extracting the starch from Typha rhizomes, a well- cooked rhizome would be softer on the palate.

One thing that we did notice was the similarity in the preparation of Typha rhizome and root bark – the method involved cooking, grinding and finally chewing to extract the sweet matter.

Typha rhizomes
The thick carbohydrate-rich Typha rhizomes, after cleaning, before cooking. Photo by Ken Macintyre, Toodyay,

Typha cakes

‘They peel the root, roast and pound it, and bake it. The root is as thick as your finger and a foot long.’ (Moore 2nd April 1834 in Cameron p. 318)

Moore (1834) in his early work has no doubt that the Typha roots were cooked twice: first roasted and then baked as a cake. But we wonder if this was the normal practice? Or could Moore have been making an assumption, coloured by his own Irish background, where cakes were always baked. Oldfield (1865) describes a more likely and immediate scenario (with reference to the Watchandi people living at the mouth of the Murchison River) for satiating hunger whereby the starchy Typha roots are first roasted and then pounded until it ‘assumes the form of a coherent cake’ or manageable mouthful and is then consumed without further cooking.

From the vague ethnohistorical accounts for southwestern Australia it would seem that this same method was used. We believe that chewing mouth-sized portions of the roasted and pounded rhizome mixture was probably the way it was consumed at large gatherings. Roasting the rhizomes, pounding and then either drying or baking them into a dry mealy “bread” which Moore (1834) describes as tasting like ‘a cake of oatmeal’ may have been practised by smaller family groups and also as a convenient means of short term food storage.

Moore’s journal entry on 29th March 1834 describes the Typha extract (unclear what he is referring to) as ‘tasteless to me, being fibrous and farinaceous.’ On the other hand, Grey’s journal entry (1841: 294) describes the ‘cake’ formed from the Typha paste after pounding the roots as ‘very nice.’

Did Noongar women make flour from Typha rhizome?

A question that we have often been asked is did Noongar people make their own flour from Typha rhizome?

For many years we have been puzzled by Moore’s reference to dulbo which he defines as:

‘dulbo – A fine farinaceous substance eaten by the natives, and this is the name sometimes given by them to our flour.’ (Moore 1842: 34)

We have wondered whether this obscure term refers to Typha flour. Was the piece of bread that Moore tasted made from Typha rhizome flour or was it the flour itself that tasted like oatmeal? He further refers to the taste of Typha when made into a cake:

‘…when kneaded and made into a cake, tastes like flour not separated from the bran.’

Moore in his journal diary dated Tues March 18th 1834 reveals that:

‘This day I have a number of natives here. I went tonight to their bivouac which is close to this place. Some of them were busy sucking the honey water which they extracted from the flowers of the red gum tree; others baking their flour into cakes.’

It is easy to assume here that Moore is referring to the traditional flour made from Typha rhizomes. However, by 1834 European flour would have been in use by Aboriginal groups, especially those living in close proximity to white settlement.  We have no doubts that Noongar women extracted a flour-like substance from the rhizomes of Typha and cooked it in much the same way as described by contemporary Noongar women whom we interviewed.  We interpret this process as roasting, peeling, grinding and removing the excess fibrous material and then baking the moist pasty mixture in an earth oven.  We could find no ethnohistorical accounts of how the Typha flour was produced. We can only imagine that In the traditional context the Typha flour would have been cooked (for the second time) as a wet mealy paste. When baked into cake form it would have been of a heavy dense texture that could be stored for future use.

If Noongar people did derive a flour-like substance from Typha, maybe the origin of damper is not based on European flour but on an ancient indigenous recipe? This poses a key question as to why indigenous people gave up this ancient food. Within the first decade of colonisation of the Swan River colony indigenous Typha cultivation and its consumption declined in settled areas owing to the colonial usurpation of the traditional Noongar hunting and gathering grounds.  The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal in 1833 reports that the local Aboriginal population of Perth and its surrounds were beggars and paupers in their own land. A system of barter soon developed between the whites and local indigenous inhabitants – the currency being flour, bread and biscuit – in exchange for fish, Acacia gum, artefacts and native labour.  The article (March 1833) states that Aboriginal people  ‘may be seen daily with loads of fish, whilst our fishermen return without any success.’  The Noongar people’s dexterity in spearing fish was so accomplished and envied by the colonial authority that it was proposed to harness their energies in catching fish in exchange for bread and flour instead of just giving it to them “without any return.” As stated in the Perth Gazette:

‘…it is to be supposed therefore, that by giving a certain quantity of bread in proportion to the fish brought in, they would be stimulated to additional activity.’ (The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 1833: 34)

We would suggest that by the time James Backhouse observed the lagoons ‘much-filled with cats-tail reed’ in 1837 the indigenous practice of burning and managing Typha beds in the Perth area had ceased owing to the colonial usurpation of their traditional hunting and gathering grounds which had resulted in a massive disruption to their traditional livelihood, forcing them to depend on white society for much of their subsistence.

Indigenous management of Typha wetlands – burning

An essential component of the indigenous cultivation of Typha was burning the bulrushes prior to harvest. This would have taken place late summer/ early autumn when the seasonal swamps had dried out. Reasons for burning were multipurpose: it helped to remove dense dried swamp vegetation that was often inhabited by poisonous snakes such as the tiger snake (norn); it provided supplementary protein in the form of animal and reptile by-catch; it was carried out during the non-nesting season for birds; it enabled access to wetland hunting grounds once water levels were replenished; it helped to preserve sufficient open water for  waterbirds; it removed dead and decaying vegetative litter and returned nutrients to the soil.

Firing the bush late summer
Firing the bush late summer. Photo by Ken Macintyre

The anthropogenic firing of Typha swamps is a good example of early Noongar people’s intervention using fire to create an ecologically balanced riverine and wetland environment. At this point we want to introduce the notion of ‘muck burning.’ Muck here refers to ‘a soil rich in carbon-based compounds from dead plants and organisms that stays burning for a long period of time.’ It involves subsoil burning and, depending on the accumulated biomass of organic plant matter, can become a very dangerous and uncontrollable type of fire, especially in swamplands and Typha colonies where it may smoulder for months.

We would suggest that because the Typha was burned annually, according to ethno-historical accounts, that possibly only a light ‘muck-burning’ of the soil took place. This would have promoted the return of carbon-rich nutrients to the Typha beds and if such conscious burning took place every year, or on a rotational basis, it must necessarily, as pointed out by Grey (1841) be seen as a type of food crop cultivation.  Light muck firing may be seen as an ancient form of wetland management. It protects the Typha beds from an excessive build up of subsurface organic material known as ‘muck’ and its potential for igniting destructive deep muck fires, arising from spontaneous combustion or lightning strikes, which in severe instances could destroy the entire Typha bed. This type of firing also provides an efficient means of fertilising the new season crop and promotes larger rhizome growth.

According to an American study which compares the muck firing of Typha domingensis with surface firing and non-firing,

‘….seedlings grown in muck-burned soils developed large rhizomes in addition to thicker, hairless roots while allocating proportionally more biomass to aboveground parts.’ (Smith and Newman 2001)

We wonder whether Grey (1841: ) was referring to an improvement in crop yield when he stated: ‘…they frequently burn the leaves of the plant in the dry seasons, in order to improve it” or was it to improve the taste as suggested by Moore (1842:81). It was probably both.

It is our contention in this paper that yandyait (or its variants) is an indigenous descriptor that refers to part of a rich freshwater wetland or riverine habitat. Grey (1840: 139) unwittingly acknowledges this at least in part when he records yun-je (from which yunjeedie derives) as ‘a tuft of emu-feathers, a stream of running water, a spring.’  He would not have been aware that he was recording an all-inclusive descriptor for a Typha wetland habitat, with the metaphor possibly extending to include a significant plant phenological indicator as to when yunjeedie should be burned prior to harvest.

The feathery seeding flowers of the Typha were a phenological indicator that it was time to burn them.

A Noongar Elder once commented to us that the feathery flowers of the seeding bulrushes were a Noongar indicator that it was time to burn them.  He was very concerned by the use of herbicides by the local Council on the Typha and other ripparian vegetation, believing that it would kill local fish and native bird populations.  He said that the Noongar way was to burn the Typha before all the seed left the flowers. In this way ‘it would destroy much of the seed.’ But he emphasised that it must be burned every year or two to keep the river fresh and the vegetation under control.  He said that he had told the government this many times but no one seemed to listen to him. The whitish-grey fluffy down of the Typha seeding flower spike (see below) was a natural indicator that the Typha beds were ready for firing. The fluffy down is reputed to be a natural tinder.  This may also have had symbolic significance to the timing of the event.  Phenological indicators enabled a high degree of precision as to the timing of ripeness or readiness of foods for harvest or in this case, burning the Typha.  

Typha mature seed heads releasing their seeds
The feathery tufts of Typha seed down – mature seed heads releasing their seeds.  Photo by Sheldon Navie.
Typha feathery seed down
Typha feathery seed down  (mature seed heads releasing their seeds) Photo by Chris Gardiner.

Grey’s yunjeedie derives from yunje meaning ‘a tuft of emu-feathers, a stream of running water, a spring’

The first of these meanings for yunje alludes to a ceremonial decoration made from tufts of emu feathers that were traditionally worn on the upper arm and head with the fluffy down attached to a stick for decoration. Moore (1842: 112) records yanji (above yanjidi in his wordlist)  as ‘a tuft of emu feathers;’ Buller Murphy (n.d.) lists yangee as ‘feather.’ The feathery likeness of Typha seed-down (pictured above) may be compared to tufts of emu feathers.  Ritual decorations made from bird feathers, especially emu, were important for ceremonial activities. The other meanings for yunje ‘a stream of running water’ and ‘a spring’ describe the freshwater habitats in which yunjeedie grows. Indigenous descriptors often have more than one meaning as we noted in our recent Bardi paper https://anthropologyfromtheshed.com/project/the-bardi-grub-in-nyungar-culture/

‘As Nyungar language and culture were based on oral tradition, all cultural knowledge had to be committed to memory through a combination of means including song, dance, chanting, story telling, poetic verse, totemic rituals and mythological narratives. Oral tradition necessitated an economy of words. Cultural constructs, knowledge and meaning were encoded into a system of mnemonics (key words, phrases or short verse) that helped to trigger memory processes and mental associations relating to essential knowledge embedded in the song-lines, totemic mythology and rituals.  All of these mechanisms contributed to provide practical instructions on how to survive, economically, socially and culturally as a hunter-gatherer people.’ (Macintyre and Dobson 2017)

Mythology of yanjit

The Typha swamp is the backdrop for many totemic birds including swans, ducks and swamp hens and also the smaller insectivorous predators, such as the restless flycatcher, willy wagtail and wren, each playing its part in the rich mythological tapestry of the wetland.  Some of these birds feature in the narratives collected by Ethel Hassell (1974) and Daisy Bates (in Bridge 1992).  The Typha swamp was also the focus of the larger and more commanding mythology of the Waugal – a powerful water spirit in the form of a large serpent that is said to have created the rivers and wetlands and is responsible for their replenishment. The Waugal was not only a creator but also a destroyer to those who disobeyed the ancient laws.  Even to this day the Waugal is feared and revered by Noongar people when they frequent places believed to be associated with the Waugal.

Throughout our time working with Noongar people they have always emphasised that the Waugal originally came from the northern regions and that its tracks are evidenced by the chain of lakes running north to south along the coastal plain from Yanchep to Beeliar.  They believe that these lakes are hydrologically connected to one another and that they represent tangible evidence of the Waugal’s subterranean odyssey as it created the landscape.

The symbolic association of Typha with the Waugal mythology is well-recognised, especially with regards to the health of the wetland ecosystem.  The Waugal has been explained to us on numerous occasions by the Elders as being a metaphor for the continuous cycle of replenishment and renewal of fresh water and birdlife in the lakes, swamps and rivers of Noongar country.

As we have previously noted in our paper ‘Factoring Aboriginal Environmental Values in Major Planning Projects:’

‘Aboriginal people believed that the water level [of swamps and rivers] was controlled by the seasons, thus creating a harmony and balance between aquatic life forms and other animals, including humans who frequented the area.’ (Macintyre and Dobson 1999 in the Australian Environmental Law News, no. 2, June-July, p. 61). 

O’Connor et al. (1989: 24) refer to the symbolism associated with the mythological Waugal that is said to inhabit Loch McNess, the central Lake at Yanchep, that is fed by springs, as follows:

‘It is through the activities of this Waugal that the springs which feed the Lake continue to flow.  Should he be killed, according to tradition, Loch McNess would dry out completely. Nyanyi-Yandjip (literally ‘pubic hairs’) was the tribal name for this area, an allusion both to the reeds surrounding the Lake and to the Waugal’s hairy mane (Yandjip is the Nyungar term for the reed Typha angustifolia).’  

During our field trips Typha has been variously described by different informants as symbolising facial hair (beards, moustaches), pubic hair and head hair (or mane) of the Waugal. These mythological descriptions are similar to the body part metaphor used by Bates’ Noongar informants’ who described limestone deposits (cliffs, outcrops and caves) along the rivers and coast as symbolising the faeces (goonna) of the mythological Waugal where it stopped to rest during its water and landscaping odyssey.  Body function metaphors are not uncommon in Noongar language and mythology where creative ancestors are anthropomorphised and seen to perform the same bodily functions as people today.

Once a nutritious seasonal staple – the Typha rhizome has long been forgotten 

Typha rhizomes were a favoured starch seasonal staple in many parts of Australia and the shoots were also eaten raw in parts of southeastern Australia. We could find no documented ethnohistorical reference to the practice of eating Typha shoots in southwestern Australia but were told by Noongar Elders that sometimes the white inner shoots of selected Typha stems were eaten raw as a snack food.  A word of caution though, for anyone tempted to experiment, the preliminary results from a study conducted in India on Typha domingensis showed that its leaf may contain potentially harmful phyto chemicals like alkaloids, tannins, saponins and steroids and that it is ‘used externally for burns and wound healing, leaves are diuretic.’ The rhizome of this species was found to contain ‘sugars, steroids and cardiac glycosides in its phytochemical analysis’ (International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research 2016:32).  Until chemical testing is conducted on our own botanical specimens from southwestern Australia at the season when they were traditionally consumed by Noongar people, we have no way of knowing the phyto-chemical and nutritional composition of yanjet (T. domingensis or T. orientalis) before or after cooking in wood ash. 

The nutritional breakdown of cooked Typha rhizome is of great interest to us. However, we could find no nutritional analysis that took into account the seasonal timing of its indigenous consumption.  Gott (1999) cites the results of a study by Brand Miller et al (1993: 112-115) of ‘a raw peeled rhizome’ of Typha orientalis but the time of specimen collection is not specified. It showed almost 70% water, 14.1% carbohydrate and 12.2% fibre (see Appendix 1). The ash content breakdown of minerals (in mg per 100 g) showed sodium 70, potassium 66, magnesium 80, calcium 34, iron 3.6, zinc 0.5, and copper 0.2:

‘The carbohydrate content consists largely of starch, tasting rather like potato when cooked. T. domingensis in South America is said to contain an `unidentified toxic principle which has purgative and emetic properties’ (Webb 1948, 163) but it is not mentioned as poisonous in Everist (1979).’ (Gott 1999)

Gott (1999) emphasises caution in interpreting these results as Brand Miller et al’s (1993) analysis is based only on one raw Typha rhizome.  The nutritional content may vary depending on region, soil, climatic factors, previous firing regimes and time of year when collected.  Another factor that should be taken into account is agricultural fertiliser run-off which can affect the chemical composition of Typha for it is a heavy nutrient feeder and functions as an effective wetland filter.

We are not aware of any chemical or nutritional analyses of yanjet rhizomes having been carried out in Western Australia. ideally if such tests are to be carried out we would recommend that (i) the Typha patch be burned in accordance with traditional local land management practices and that (ii) the sample specimens are collected during autumn (late March/ April/ May) in accordance with the ethnohistorical record when the root is still in its dormancy and before the heavy winter rains cause flooding. It is important that the date of collection of specimen is synchronised with the timing of traditional usage. Until we have our own local chemical analyses, we must rely on studies conducted in other parts of the world which may be indicative but hardly conclusive.

We have no doubt that Typha is one of the most ancient forms of carbohydrates utilised by humans. An Italian study found that Typha starch residue that was recovered from the surface of grinding stone implements from several sites across Europe was dated to be at least 30,000 years old (Revedin et al. 2010).   We would assume given the antiquity of Australian Aboriginal culture that if such archaeological research were to be systematically conducted on grinding materials from southwestern Australia that the results could well predate these European findings.

It would seem that we have raised more questions than answers in this paper.  It is now time for our local archaeology and anthropology university departments in cooperation with chemists and food scientists to reconstruct indigenous food processing techniques in an attempt to determine the nutritional value of these ancient foods.

We would like to alert anyone who is intending to consume Noongar bush tucker that many indigenous foods are toxic or bitter tasting without the proper processing and preparation. 


1. We find it surprising that WA Florabase provides an image of T. orientalis which they declare to be an “introduced” species but does not provide an image of the native Typha domingensis.  

2. We wonder if Grey’s comment about there being two species of Typha is based on two different names he may have collected for this plant. When he travelled to the north of Noongar country he may have come into contact with a different name for the plant; for example, among the Watchandi at the mouth of the Murchison river the indigenous name for Typha or bulrush is “ura” (see Oldfield 1865). (Grey travelled through this area in the late 1830’s). Different names for a particular plant, animal or bird were often assigned to different “species’ by early recorders, especially Grey (1840), Moore (1842) and Drummond (1842) as if assuming (wrongly!) that indigenous people followed the same Linnaean speciation model.

3. The experimental research on which this paper is based was conducted by Ken Macintyre and Barb Dobson in March and April 2008 at Toodyay, 84 km northeast of Perth, Western Australia.


In progress

APPENDIX 1: Nutritional analysis of rhizome of Typha orientalis

Comparison of content of Typha and Triglochin (mg/100g)              

             Energy   Water   Protein   Fat                          

Typha        277Kj     69.9     2.8     0.1                          
Triglochin   297Kj     79.1     1.4     0.1                          

             Carbohydrate   Fibre    Ash                             

Typha            14.1        12.2    0.9                             
Triglochin       17.4         1.4    1.8

In the table above Gott (1999) provides the results of a study by Brand Miller et al (1993: 112-115) on the nutritional analysis of ‘a raw peeled rhizome’ of Typha orientalis. She includes, for comparative purposes, an analysis of the nutritional content of Triglochin tubers that were consumed by Aboriginal groups in southeastern Australia.  Time of year of collection of samples of Typha and Triglochin specimens is not specified. We would recommend a similar analysis be carried out of the nutritional composition of local Typha rhizomes from southwestern Australia at the starch-rich season, around April.