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By  Pamela Tyers 22 January 2024 2 min read

Key points

  • We worked with the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Melbourne Water to better understand native, or sovereign, grasses.
  • We found that the sovereign species can be more nutritious than domesticated wheat varieties.
  • The knowledge from this work will help Wadawurrung maintain the health and regeneration of grassland communities on Country.

When we think of grasses we eat, grains like wheat or oats might come to mind. These crops are cultivated globally and are eaten by billions of people. But did you know that Australia has its own sovereign grains?

Grass belonging to Country was once widespread throughout the continent. Urbanisation, western agriculture and other farming practices have fragmented the landscape. This has led to a significant reduction in land covered by these grasses. This degradation of grassland communities on Country comes with a loss of knowledge.

Gunditjmara man Chase Aghan, Wadawurrung woman Tammy Gilson and Wadawurrung woman Kelly Ann Blake work for the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. They are working to maintain the health and regeneration of grassland communities on Country (Dja). And with the right fire (Wiyn) and support for their access to and care for Dja, they can succeed.

“We have a deep respect for Dja and everything belonging to it,” said Kelly Ann, who is a Gherrang/Biodiversity Project Officer.

“We see and listen to Dja as our teacher of many indicators to assist with returning Wiyn to Dja and restoring spirit, Murrup,” said Tammy, a Cultural Fire Practitioner and Weaver.

The Wadawurrung team at their seedling nursery (L-R): Tammy Gilson, Chase Aghan, Greg Robinson, Cheryl Taylor (CSIRO), Kelly Ann Blake and Lidija Veljanovski. Photo supplied.

Nutritional grass-essment

We worked with the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Melbourne Water. The goal was to better understand native grasses on grassland reserves to the west of the city. The reserves, managed by Melbourne Water, feature the striking land formation, the You Yangs.

Kangaroo grass, Themeda triandra, is one of these grains and is found in open grasslands. Its seed has traditionally been important to Indigenous peoples as food, medicine and fibre.

Kangaroo grass grains on Wadawurrung Country contain higher protein than whole wheat.

We undertook a nutritional analysis of the kangaroo grass, looking at kilojoule content, protein, dietary fibre, good fats and sodium. We also tested mixed spear grass, Austrostipa spp.

These grasses are in the Poaceae or Gramineae family. This is the same family as many common domesticated cereal crops such as wheat, maize, rice and barley.

Wheat does the future look like?

The results show the kangaroo grass contained higher protein than whole wheat. It also offers a better supply of essential amino acids to meet dietary needs. Carbohydrates are one of the three key macronutrients our body needs for energy. They were higher in the two native grasses than in wheat.

All up, we found that the nutritional profiles of the native species were consistently better than those of domesticated wheat varieties.

This work will help the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation manage these grasslands using culturally proven and ecologically sensitive practices. It could help enhance grain production and its nutritional value, and even open the door to opportunities for future food products.

“We need to bring back our rightful grains to the table and regain knowledge systems to conserve our grassland communities once again,” said Chase, Biodiversity Officer.

So, when you’re zooming down a highway, just think: what’s growing in the grasslands or even on the side of the road could be what we’re munching on in the future.

Wadawurrung people are the Traditional Custodians of the land and Country in which this work was undertaken. We’d like to acknowledge that the Wadawurrung people have cared for their Country for many generations and continue their deep connection to the land, seas and skies today. We pay our respects to the elders past and present.

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