by Alison Lullfitz, Jessikah Woods, Lynette Knapp, Shandell Cummings, and Stephen D. Hopper, The Conversation
Noongar Country, in southwestern Australia, is home to the world’s largest parasitic plant, a powerful mistletoe that blooms every December. This is why it is commonly known as the WA Christmas Tree. But it also goes by other names, mungee and moodjar. And it has great significance to the Noongar people, including the Merningar people of the south coast.
While the unique biology and charisma of the species (Nuytsia floribunda) have been recognized by traditional owners for millennia, such rich indigenous knowledge is barely known to Western science. Our research team includes three generations of Merningar along with non-indigenous scientists. In our new research, we set out to explore mungee physiology, ecology, and evolution from the perspectives of indigenous and Western sciences.
The plant’s ability to access a wide range of resources is remarkable, allowing it to thrive in the harsh, infertile but biologically rich landscapes of South West Australia. This is also the case for the Noongar people, whose traditional diet reflects the biological richness of their country.
Mungee is a teacher revered by the Noongar people, with lessons for all of us on how to live sustainably and in harmony with one another.
A sand-loving parasite
Nuytsia floribunda is widespread in the Noongar Country (Boodja) and is known to most Noongar as moodjar. But Merningar and other southern Noongar groups also call it mungee. Being primarily Merningar, we call it a mungee and use that term here.
Mungee is a mistletoe tree that grows up to 10 m tall on sandy soils. It is endemic to southwestern Australia, but is widespread. The plant’s parasitic ability comes from highly modified ring-shaped roots (haustoria) that act like pruning shears to extract water and nutrients from other plants.
We use “two-way science” (cross-cultural ecology) methods, including a literature review, shared Country visitation logging, and an author workshop, to investigate the mungee more fully than would be possible through observation alone. western science.
A revered teacher offering divine guidance
Like other indigenous Australian knowledge systems, the Merningar tradition is based on place. It inextricably links people, specific places, other organisms and non-living entities of the country. Mungee tells specific stories about where she lives, the plants she lives with, and when she blooms.
The species is widely considered sacred among the Noongar peoples. For Merningar, it has the highest status of all plants. Mungee has an important tradition about how we as humans relate to each other and the world around us, similar to a foundational religious text like the Christian Bible.
To the Merningar, mungee is a powerful medium that helps restless spirits pass into the afterlife, known as Kuuranup. This allows those of us who are still alive to be undisturbed by their presence.
The older crone, Lynette, describes the mungee as her teacher, giving her guidance on how to exist in the Merningar Boodja. The annual summer flowers represent his ancestors returning to his country, reminding him that he should appreciate and respect both his elders and his Boodja.
Lynette calls the ring-shaped haustoria of mungee her “bush lolly.” According to Merningar tradition, digging for these sweets is not allowed when the mungee is blooming. This is when shrub palettes are in short supply, so the rule of thumb is to live within seasonal limitations.
An example of sustainable living
Mungee reproduces mainly by cloning, sending suckers up to 100 m from the mother plant to produce identical copies. This results in patches of mungee clones coming together in tight-knit populations.
We saw parallels between mungee patches and the communal kinship structures of Noongar society, where the family is more important than the individual.
Prior to European settlement, extended Noongar families lived in largely separate groups, interconnected with other family groups as part of a larger geopolitical system. We see the mungee as a botanical example of putting the community before individuals, for the common good.
Mungee accesses water and nutrients by taking advantage of a wide range of plant hosts. This host diversity allows mungee to live in many different landscapes. This parallels the sophisticated, but often site-specific knowledge of the Noongar peoples through their botanically rich Boodja, which has enabled the use of a wide range of traditional plants.
Living a prosperous life within environmental limits is achieved by making conservative use of a wide range of resources. It provides a lesson for all who live in dry and infertile regions like South West Australia.
A tree to celebrate
Mungee’s bright orange flowers bring joy to all who witness their display during the celebratory months of summer in South West Australia. The plant’s unique biology, ingenuity, and charisma have long been recognized by Noongar peoples and their lore.
The prolific annual flowers are a reminder of the many elderly people who have cared for their Boodja over the millennia. They also remind us to protect the legacy of the old.
For Merningar, mungee is a valuable teacher and an example of thriving biological (including human) existence in the global biodiversity hotspot of southwestern Australia. He also has a lot to teach the rest of us.
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