For millennia, native plants like the “kangaroo apple” and “fish poison” were staples in the daily lives of First Nations people. 

Key points:

  • Students at a Port Pirie high school are connecting with country in a unique bush-tucker environment 
  • Time spent in the Urumbula Garden has led to better grades and wellbeing for students 
  • It is the first school garden to be part of Open Gardens SA’s program

But cultural dispossession caused by the arrival of Europeans meant that, for many Aboriginal people, that ancient knowledge was lost. 

Now, thanks to a high school garden in South Australia’s Mid North, young descendants of those traditional owners are rediscovering those ties.

Seventeen-year-old Tyson Emmons only found out he was a Narungga man at the end of last year after conducting some research.

“This program gave me that opportunity to learn more not just about my mob, but others’ mobs and how they connect — their ways before settlement, and also how they dealt with settlement,” Tyson said.

Shannon McGregor, Bella-Jai Veale and Tyson Evans in the Urumbula Garden yarning circle.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Over the past few years, significant effort from students and volunteers has transformed a corner of a Port Pirie high school into an Aboriginal garden, teeming with native plants used by First Nations people for millennia.

John Pirie Secondary School’s Urumbula Garden provides a unique opportunity for Aboriginal students to take time out from class and connect with country, learn about their culture, and also assume leadership roles within the school community. 

A yarning circle installed in 2019 sits in front of a colourful mural completed by students under the guidance of Judy Crosby-Woods. It’s a space for students to connect across year levels. 

Aboriginal students lead tours and share their knowledge of their culture and plants.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

The plants at Urumbula Garden have at least 14 different uses for First Nations people.

Students care for the plants and study them so they can share this knowledge with the community when they lead tours around the gardens.

A walk around Urumbula takes in the kangaroo apple, whose purple flowers were mixed with clay and crushed rock to use for ceremonies, explains student tour guide Shannon McGregor, 16. 

The three-pronged leaf of the kangaroo apple, also known as Solanum aviculare.(ABC North and West SA: Isabella Carbone)

He said the fruit of this plant could only be eaten when it had turned a deep red colour — eat it unripened and you risk lethal levels of cyanide, as several European colonisers discovered too late.

Another student, Bella-Jai Veale, shows off the plant “fish poison”, or native indigo, and explains how the plant was crushed and thrown in the water to stun fish and bring them to the surface.

The 14-year-old Adnyamathanha student lived with anxiety and had trouble speaking to people before their teacher suggested they get involved with the Urumbula Garden.

The space now includes an outdoor classroom for students to learn in the garden.(ABC North & West SA: Isabella Carbone)

“The garden has become my safe haven,” Bella-Jai said.

“It’s just blossomed into a career path I want to take on once I finished school.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by the other students. 

“That feeling that they feel in here reflects onto the rest of their schooling,” Shannon McGregor said. 

“We’ve seen grades increase just by taking a little bit of time out … we’ve seen switches in people.”

Aboriginal students like Shannon McGregor, Tyson Evans and Bella-Jai Veale say Urumbula Garden is a safe haven for them.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

The Urumbula Garden recently became the first school garden to feature in Open Gardens SA’s program.

Students gave bush-food cooking demonstrations and workshops on the garden’s plants, and displays showed bush food juxtaposed with their “supermarket” equivalents. 

Displays show the different native plants and what First Nations people used them for.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

John Pirie Secondary School Aboriginal education coordinator Jamie Fricker said the Urumbula Garden program has had a phenomenal impact on participants.

“The pride that they have in this garden is amazing and second to none,” Ms Fricker said.

For Tyson, that pride bloomed bright during tours of the garden. 

“It’s such a proud feeling … to know that you’ve accomplished something by knowing this knowledge — learning it — and then passing it on,” he said.

Word about the garden has spread fast, with the students now set to host international visitors from the Mediterranean Gardening Society, who plan to make the trip out from Adelaide for a tour.

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