Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Where have all the Yamfields gone?

When Europeans arrived in (what was to become) the State of Victoria in south-east Australia in the 1830s, Aboriginals had a diet that consisted of game - such as possums, birds, lizards, marsupials - and plants. We know the later was important because there are many early journal records, made by settlers, surveyors and those entrusted with the care of Aboriginals, that detail the use of plants as part of the diet. For example, Curr (1883) records that Aborigines were "living principally on wild roots and animals". Gott (1982) suggests that there are at least 218 Victorian plant species with edible roots that could have been incorporated into the Aboriginal diet. No wonder some estimates suggest plants comprised 50% of the diet of Aboriginals.

One of the most important food plants was Murnong - the Yam Daisy as we know it today, or Microseris lanceolata. Murnong is a perennial daisy characterised by radish-like, edible tuberous roots. The first record of the use of Murnong in Victoria is from the Geelong area, by the surveyor Wedge in 1835, who noted that it was "a root eaten by the native" and it was recorded as being in the 'millions' (Robertson 1840). Major Thomas Mitchell, in 1836, also recorded that, east of the Grampians, the "vast extent of open downs" was "quite yellow with Murnong", furthering the belief that it was a widespread, abundant species. William Buckley, the convict who escaped imprisonment and lived with Aborigines, suggested that a "man may live on the root for weeks". At Colbinabbin near Echuca, "yams were so abundant and so easily procured that one might have collected in an hour, with a pointed stick, as many as would have served a family for the day" (Curr 1886). Robinson (cited in Presland 1980) decribes how women were "spread over the plain as far as I could see them... each has a load as much as she could carry".

Murnong was so important - and a preferred food for Aborigines in central and western Victoria - that it was cultivated (in the broadest sense) as a staple food plant. Tubers, which form each year, were dug up and while there is no evidence of deliberate re-planting of Murnong in the process of digging by women for the root tubers, there is abundant evidence that fire was used to manage yams or, as Curr (1883) writes, Aborigines "cultivated his pastures with fire" in order to manage the root tuber resource. This interventionist management has largely been unrecognised, but is repeated throughout the literature. For example, "they burn the grass to better see the roots" (Robinson 1840).

Indeed, what seems to have occurred is that Yamfields were 'created' within forest clearings, grasslands and woodlands by the careful and deliberate use of fire. Yamfields are literally food gardens where the actions of Aboriginals helped maintain, and probably increase, the abundance of desirable food resources. Crucially, there is the potential that forested country was deliberately kept open by fire to maintain these important food plants. Lawrence Niew√≥jt provides a tantalising suggestion to this effect for the Otway Ranges where forests dominate: "Burning maintained the open structure of the forest, allowing continued use of the movement corridor in addition to ensuring good yields of vegetable crops. Furthermore, this flexible system of land management could easily accommodate changes in population by altering fire frequency and physically enlarging yam fields. The tending of herbaceous plants in this manner ensured that foods could be harvested and consumed without the need for storage facilities". Bowman (1998) goes further: "fire was a powerful tool that Aborigines used systematically and purposefully over the landscape" and that "there is little doubt that Aboriginal burning was skilful and was central to the maintenance of the landscapes colonised by Europeans in the 19th century".

Today, Murnong is disappearing/ has disappeared from the plains grasslands and elsewhere. Sheep saw to that; within 15 yrs of European settlement, 20 million sheep swarmed across central and western Victoria. Five years after the founding of Melbourne, the Goulburn Aborigine called Moonin-Moonin had already observed that "too many jumbuck [sheep] and bulgana [cattle] plenty eat it myrnyong - all gone myrnyong" (Dredge 1839). Few populations now remain and certainly it is not in the millions as described by Robinson (1840) and others, such that the "the wheels of our dray used to turn them up by the bushel" (Curr 1886). It's even hard to visualise where these Yamfields once existed. Such is the loss of the natural vegetation, and the loss of the cultural connection with land across much of south-east Australia.
  1. Were they confined to relatively small, intensively cultivated areas near water where food resources are highest?
  2. Were they scattered across forests, a day's walking apart to sustain people on the move (as hinted at in Blay 2015)?
  3. Were they common in areas that now seem somewhat anomalous - grassland clearings in otherwise wooded vegetation?
There is so much we don't know.

I think we need reverse the decline of the Yamfields. Wouldn't it be wonderful to Re-Yam the Plains (particularly the temperate grasslands of south-east Australia that have low diversity because of a century of grazing) and improve our understanding of the role of Aboriginal people in the landscape.  Ecological studies of fire and disturbance would be necessary to understand the conditions under which these beautiful daisies recruit and proliferate. And, by having Aboriginal people involved in the quest to Re-Yam the Plains, it's an important step to involve them to care for country in a way that has little been recognised as important in south-east Australia. The impact of colonisation on Aboriginal landscapes has rarely formed part of the story. This would be a small but important step in that recognition.

If you know of very large Murnong populations on the plains, or are already involved in the recovery of Yamfields, I'd love to hear your story (J.Morgan@latrobe.edu.au).

Selected reading
Blay J (2015) On Track- Searching out the Bundian Way. NewSouth Publishing.
Curr EM (1883) Recollections of squatting in Victoria 1841-1851. Robertson, Melbourne.
Gott B (1982) Ecology of root use by the Aborigines of southern Australia. Archeology in Oceania 17, 59-67.
Gott B (1983) Murnong - Microseris scapigera: a study of a staple food of Victorian Aborigines. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2, 2-18.
Gott B (2005) Aboriginal fire management in south-eastern Australia: aims and frequency. Journal of Biogeography 32, 1203-1208.
Prober SM, Spindler LH, Brown AHD (1998) Conservation of the Grassy White Box woodlands: effects of remnant population size on genetic diversity in the allotetraploid herb Microseris lanceolata. Conservation Biology 12, 1279-1290.


Ben Courtice said...

I've tried to grow them from (non-local) seed at Bacchus Marsh on sandy loam. All died, one flowered, maybe due to soil compaction, lack of rainfall in the last couple of years, or something else (lack of fire nutrient release? Mycorrhizae? Wrong seed provenance I am just guessing). I plan to keep trying!

Fiona said...

I'd love to have a go if I could get the seed.

microseris said...

We used to grow them for the Knox Environment Society community nursery. We would collect small quantities of seed from local bushland reserves and then grow them in tubes in polystyrene boxes. When they flowered in spring, the proximity of the flowers in the boxes resulted in a large seed set which was easy to collect and then that box of plants could be planted out and the seed collected used to grow many more boxes of plants or direct seed. Planted in the ground they did not like competition and often only persisted for up to 2 - 3 years. If plant density was sparse, seed set was poor.

pietro said...

i,ve grown them from local flowers in the wombat forest >90% germination
the flowering dance is a thing to behold
a few grown in situ died after 3 yrs or so, I will try burning & i,m going to plant in the vege garden
i wonder if the disturbance of gathering is part of the ecology

John Morgan said...

Thanks all for responding - sounds like there is lots of local interest and that scaling up to yamfield restoration (1000s of plants over hectares of grassland) will be a huge challenge. Let's hope that it is possible - and that local populations of Microseris are not blinking out before our eyes. JOHN