Gumby gumby trees and other Aboriginal medicines to be researched by CQ University

Gumby gumby trees and other Aboriginal medicines to be researched by CQ University

University researchers have delved into the properties of gumby gumby trees and other traditional medicines in partnership with a Ghungalu elder who practises from his “bush pharmacy” in central Queensland.

Uncle Steve Kemp has been using the knowledge from his Great-Uncle Charlie Munns, a so-called medicine man who treated some of the first Aboriginal people who arrived during 1926 in Woorabinda — 170 kilometres south-west of Rockhampton.

Indigenous people who were living in Taroom at the time were forced to leave and endured an exhausting 200-kilometre journey to Woorabinda.

Uncle Steve has been cultivating plants and honing his understanding of the traditional medicine passed down to his father for decades, and was now supplying CQ University with plant material and tonics to study.

Gumby gumby trees and other Aboriginal medicines to be researched by CQ University
Uncle Steve Kemp with a capsule of gumby gumby harvested near his Woorabinda home.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

The project would investigate whether his medicine has anti-bacterial, anti-oxidative, anti-viral or even anti-cancer properties.

“I believe it makes it more powerful coming off our country, so spiritually our medicine is more powerful if it’s produced by traditional owners,” Uncle Steve said.

“When we make stuff we put our mind and spirit into it as well.”

Uncle Steve said some of the material being studied, such as gumby gumby (Pittosporum angustifoloium) and bitterbark (Alstonia constricta), have been used to treat colds.

Bitterbark was also used to treat malaria when diggers came back from World War II.

Clear capsules containing green power on a white paper plate
Uncle Steve produces his own gumby gumby capsules from Ghungalu country.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Early results promising

CQ University researcher Mani Naiker considered the study unique because Uncle Steve operated as a healer in the community while supplying and processing plant materials for the project.

“He’s operating a pharmacy, a bush pharmacy, so to speak, where there’s more than just leaves and one or two products,” Dr Naiker said.

“He’s got a plethora of products.

“We are already getting some preliminary results … we can say generally that they’ve got anti-viral or they’re called potential anti-cancer properties.”

Two men
CQ University researcher Mani Naiker is testing Uncle Steve’s medicines.(Supplied: CQ University)

He said Uncle Steve’s knowledge of plants and animals such as goanna and echidna were critical to the project.

Gumby gumby, one of the materials being studied, has proved challenging for researchers in the past thanks to its many varieties.

“Not many people can differentiate the one which has medicinal power amongst the many others which are useless,” Dr Naiker said.

“[Uncle Steve] he knows exactly where which part of the land has the best or medicinal power gumby gumby … or which part of the land has goannas or echidna that have the best fat.”

A close up picture of an older man's face with facial hair in front of a tree
Uncle Steve says traditional medicine combined with Western medicine is most effective.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Traditional preparation

Uncle Steve said the research would focus on fresh products, as well as the tonics that were made from the plant material.

“With gumby gumby you get better results straight off the tree [than] when you boil the water, but if you dry the leaf out and keep it for a couple of months, then obviously it will have no goodness,” he said.

“That’s what I believe.”

A tree with lots of green leafs and tiny orange fruit
Uncle Steve has planted two side-by-side gumby gumby trees to trial different conditions.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Uncle Steve said the research would also investigate how the medicine was prepared.

“The secret is [in] how we boiled it and what did we use?

“What utensil did we use?”

He said he hoped the knowledge his great-uncle passed down would eventually see his products on the mainstream market and provide employment opportunities for his community.

Uncle Steve added that his dream would be to purchase land to grow the plants, where they could be preserved for generations to come.

“[It goes back] at least four generations [of my family] to our knowledge before Captain Cook … if not many thousands of years,” he said.

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