Native plants in the Kimberleys

Sabrina Hahn talks about her work building gardens with the indigenous population of the Kimberleys...
15 August 2013

Interview with 

Sabrina Hahn


Sabrina Hahn is a renowned gardener who works with some of the people in The KimberleyAustralia who live closest to the land, the indigenous communities of the Kimberley in the vast and truly remote region of north-western Australia where communities are regularly cut-off when dirt roads are flooded in the wet season.

Victoria Gill spoke to Sabrina about her work creating vegetable gardens which aim to preserve and build on the knowledge of native edible plants and the traditional bush tucker.

Sabrina - I guess for me, it's a sharing of knowledge and getting hold of that knowledge of the elders before it's actually lost. So, I share my knowledge of growing western vegetables to improve the health of the children. They share their knowledge of the food that they used to use constantly and go out and harvest.

We know that unless the young children in these communities have access to fresh food particularly the green vegetables, that it really affects their long term health. But what's emerged now with the collection of their bush tucker foods is, they've discovered just how high those foods are in proteins and vitamins. So, that's an essential part of their diet. Of course culturally, the women and the children go out bush and they used to walk for miles and miles, and harvest the food and then bring it back to the whole community. So, the intention of the vegetable gardens is to share the food in the same way that culturally, they share all their bush tucker food. So, we have actually incorporated both the bush tucker and western food like all the greens and tomatoes. So, it's a real - the food gardens are now a conduit into culture.

Victoria - Can you describe some of the types of vegetables that you can grow in that environment and that are native to that landscape?

Sabrina - There's a white currant bush which is a bush that just gets thousands of white little berries on them. There's another tree called the gubinge tree which has 60...

Victoria -  The gubinge tree.

Sabrina - Yeah gubinge.

Victoria - That's a great word.

Sabrina - It has 68 times more vitamin C than oranges and the kids absolutely love that. There's another one called Marule and it's like a little native plum, like a small fruiting plum. We did this cross cultural cooking where we'll use the fruit from the gubinge and put it in stir fries with the mud crab because it's almost like a tangeriny tart flavour. It's great in cooking.

Victoria - Talking about cooking. Can you share your favourite cross-cultural recipe with us?

Sabrina - I think mud crab would have to be my favourite recipe. We use chillies, but there's a lot of tamarind trees that grow around. They're not native, but they grow around the area. So, with a little bit of tamarind seed and the nuts from the gubinge tree and then you add the marule, the black plum at the very, very end which is a little bit like an olive I suppose. It gives this really tangy, sort of Asian flavours and there's a native lemon grass that grows all through there, and it has the most beautiful subtle lemon flavour and that's gorgeous in fresh fish.

Victoria - Sounds delicious. I want to try it. While we've been here at the National Science Week, we've been talking to quite a few researchers and one thing that keeps coming up when we talk to people that work outdoors in the environment here in western Australia is the drought. How much environmental change have you seen whilst you've been working out there?

Sabrina - It's really noticeable and I know that lots of the older people I talk to in communities say that the wet season is changing. The timing of the wet season is changing. Because indigenous people are so culturally linked to country, they can understand that when there's a difference in the wet season, it actually changes the time when the bush tucker comes on and it also is affecting the oceans.

So, they know when the dugongs and turtles come through. That time is changing now, so it's having an impact, not only on the fruiting of their traditional bush tucker plants, but also, what's happening in the oceans. So, traditionally when certain wattles, are at a certain time of flowering, the oysters are the best for eating. But what's happened now is they're finding that many of the oysters are actually opening up and dying, and no one knows why, and the wattles are flowering much, much later. So, it's having a really big impact.

Victoria - So, as that changes, I guess the way that people who have always lived with the land very closely to the land and known its environment so, so well, that's all having to change too. So, how do you see your role as somebody that studies the landscape, and works within the landscape, how do you see your role changing as the environment shifts?

Sabrina - I think my role now becomes very important to collect as many different species as we possibly can to bring them into community and to actually water them and fertilise them. So, we actually have a base of plants that are there so that we can tissue culture some of these plants or we can grow them on hot beds in nurseries in their hundreds because eventually, it will of course have an effect on the very few plants that are left. So, we need to increase that base of plants so we've got the diversity that we can keep the species going.


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