Making medicine from the bush

  • Irmangka in hands
    Irmangka in hands
  • Selina Bob with Irmangka Irmangka [Image: Georgia McKenzie]
    Selina Bob with Irmangka Irmangka [Image: Georgia McKenzie]
  • Kianaha Quinn and Tamara Stewart, Bush Balm staff [Image: KWPX, Tourism NT]
    Kianaha Quinn and Tamara Stewart, Bush Balm staff [Image: KWPX, Tourism NT]
  • Tamara Stewart pouring Bush Balm [Image: Emma Murray]
    Tamara Stewart pouring Bush Balm [Image: Emma Murray]
Katie Merriman
Purple House
Katie Merriman,
Administration and
Events Assistant

High on the rocky slopes surrounding the Central Australian community of Utju (Areyonga) grows a strong-smelling, needle-leafed plant known as Irmangka Irmangka (Eremophila Alternifolia). Aboriginal people from the Western Desert have relied on the medicinal properties of this plant for thousands of years. As a natural anti-inflammatory and pain relief, Irmangka Irmangka has traditionally been used to relieve arthritis, muscle and joint pain, as well as cold and flu symptoms.

It’s good for your sore throat, scabies, even when you got COVID … use it everywhere. – Petrina Wendy, community member

This knowledge has been passed down through countless generations and is now taught to children at Areyonga School.

Grandmother and Grandfather told us about it. We need to keep using it for them. – Selina Bob, Purple House patient mentor and Utju community member

With colonisation came new illnesses and synthetic medicines. The rates of kidney disease in Central Australia are today significantly higher than the rest of the country, forcing many to leave Country and family to seek dialysis treatment in regional and metropolitan centres. The escalation of this health and social crisis in the 1990s was the catalyst for the formation of Purple House.

With the aim of improving the lives of people with renal failure and getting patients home on Country, Purple House now operates 19 remote dialysis clinics across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, as well as two mobile ‘Purple Truck’ dialysis units. The organisation also provides primary health care, social support, aged care and NDIS services, along with a bush medicine enterprise.

When Purple House first opened two decades ago, it became a home away from home for many dialysis patients stuck in Alice Springs. Wanting to feel less homesick, two ladies from Utju (Areyonga) asked their family to bring some Irmangka Irmangka plant to town so they could make bush medicine to complement their Western medical treatment. They cooked up small batches in a billycan over the fire in the backyard of Purple House, making enough to share with other patients while sharing stories and memories of the past.

Other patients and community members started hearing that you could get bush medicine from Purple House, so it was decided to bottle the balms.

From these humble beginnings, Bush Balm was born as a social enterprise. Today, traditional owners are paid to wild harvest Irmangka Irmangka, Arrethe and native lemongrass plants. The balms are still made the same way except that a herb grinder is used instead of a grinding stone and a stove instead of a campfire. Purple House’s formal name – Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation – means ‘keeping all our families well’, so the primary focus as a social enterprise is making sure that patients have unlimited access to free bush medicine. The retail and wholesale trade also supports Indigenous employment, training and the passing on of vital knowledge.

Since the establishment of Purple House, survival rates on dialysis in Central Australia have gone from the worst in the country to the best. This story shows how Western medicine and traditional practices can be used together to help Indigenous patients live the best life possible and maintain important connections to culture.

Bush medicine makes us feel much better inside us, make our feelings good. – Selina Bob

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