Ochre_BushFoods-Boonooloo.jpg

Native food platter. © Ochre Restaurant and Catering, Cairns, 2022.

It is with a measure of trepidation that I dare to dip my amateur toes in this amazing field of Australian lore. There are, of course, far more experienced and knowledgeable people than me to be giving advice regarding Aussie bush foods. I have no hesitation whatsoever to start this series with a tip of the Akubra to the many wonderful bush men and women, First Nations and otherwise, who have encyclopaedic understanding of all things edible in Australia. For this reason I must start this series introduction with a brief bibliography of my chief influencers.

Malcolm Douglas (1941-2010) - While there may not be a book to his name, there are dozens of excellent quality documentaries (still available! e.g. [LINK]) which I devoured and marveled at as a child. Douglas was a custodian of the old ways of the interior and the north, and all of his materials are strikingly relevant even today and could save your life! Malcolm's legacy lives on by means of the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park near Broome, Western Australia [LINK].​
Les Hiddins (1946-) - aka the "Bush Tucker Man", Les is a legend of all things survival in Australia's rugged and variable climate and another of my childhood icons. His Bush Tucker Field Guide (2002) is another staple that should be in every Australian backpack. Other than Malcolm Douglas, I don't think anyone has done more to advance Australian bush survival than him. His website is here [LINK] (AU$5/month membership fee).​
Tim Low (1956-) - A huge thank you must be said for this man who made such beautiful and accessible guides for all things edible in Australia. I owe a great debt to his Wild Food Plants of Australia (revised edition 1991 - annotated pocket field guide), Bush Tucker (1989 - comprehensive, and the book which popularised bush tucker!), and Wild Herbs of Australia and New Zealand (1985 - comprehensive, mostly introduced greens and weeds). His website is here [LINK].​
All First Nations Lore Keepers Here and Abroad - It is imperative that your encyclopaedic knowledge of the edibles of your lands is taught to the coming generations, to all who would sit humbly at your feet. Great and irreparable damage has been done to both the land and the people over the last 200 years, and much of what was once known is lost, and much of what is left is kept secret for good reason. I thank you for sharing with us what you have, and pray the future will be a bountiful one for all people who live on this majestic continent, sharing in the richness of your traditions and knowledge. These, I hope, are written in honour of all traditional First Nation elders and custodians, past, present and future.​

Isn't it too dangerous?!

Australia has a perpetual mystique, especially amongst our overseas friends, for being deadly to humans. Be it the minuscule irukanjdi jellyfish of the coral coast, a slithering desert taipan, a monster 5m croc in Kakadu, an unassuming redback spider, or the appealing red fruits of the violently poisonous cunjevoi, there is much to be wary of in the Australian bush. For all the dangers, however, both real and perceived, there is a bounty of plenty to be had for those in the know. Australia is home to literally thousands of edible plants, fruits, flowers, roots, tubers, and seeds (Low, 1989). While some species are certainly dangerous and ought to be avoided, life is all about taking measured risks and listening, sometimes ardently, other times less so, to the advice of those who know the path between the good and bad, the life-sustaining and life-destroying wild foods of Australia.

This series is intended to introduce Australia's more delectable and accessible native edibles. In order to limit the breadth of species to cover, I am going to limit this series to edible plants only, with perhaps one article on obnoxiously poisonous plants to be wary of in your travels. I shall endeavour to point out notable look-alikes, poisonous or otherwise, along the way. As I am inexperienced in wild mushroom foraging (and Australia is home to more than 250,000 species of fungi!), these will be omitted except for identifying the dangerous death cap so you know not to pick it - ever! I will also preference these articles towards plants which can be found in the larger swathes of this sunkissed continent - I don't think it would be particularly helpful to give details of the edible croziers of a rare and protected fern growing in a single gorge in central Queensland, for example!

Trust your Taste!

At the heart of wild food foraging is the art of culinary discernment. The same plant species harvested from two different locations may vary widely in its taste profile. Thus, the thing that all wild food foragers must learn is to trust your incredible sense of taste. Eagles may excel us in vision, bats in hearing and dogs at smelling, but the human tongue is equipped with a true menagerie of applicability to discern a noxious and bitter alkaloid from a sweet and safe edible. Now this is a general rule and there are exceptions, all of which shall be pointed out along the way. But generally, if it tastes revolting or bitter, it's probably no good to you raw (cooked is another matter!). If it tastes alright raw, it will generally be safe to eat raw. If you are unsure, always trust your taste. Some toxins persist after cooking, so always let taste be your guide. To assist us in this end is the following flowchart of experimentation:

Eye - Does it look like it can be eaten? Is it appealing to the eye? Can you see other animals eating it? Have you read and seen that this is an edible species?​
Nose - Does it smell nice? Does it irritate the nose when crushed or cut?​
Lip - Does a small slice puff or blister the lip, cause immediate burning or irritation?​
Tongue - Does a small slice taste bitter, astringent or insipid at the tip of the tongue? Does it cause swelling, blistering, burning, stabbing or an overall revolting sensation?​
Throat - Does a small slice burn or swell the throat after swallowing?​
Stomach - Does it make you vomit or cause diarrhea in the hours after consumption?​

If it is your first time to try an Australian edible, use this process even if you are confident from the advice in these articles (and the experts) that it is 100% edible. Get used to going through this process as it may save you a moment of anaphylactic (allergic) reaction. Let me illustrate this with a personal example.

As a kid, I loved watching Totally Wild with Ranger Stacey as a standard offering when I got home from school. One episode showed how indigenous people used to harvest taro from the riverbanks. "I know that plant, it grows down at the park in the river!" I exclaimed to myself in excitement and immediately left home to go and harvest some. These were the carefree days when a 9 y/o could leave home without the parents worrying in the slightest. The huge spear-head taro leaves are difficult to miss, growing in clumps everywhere as they do. I excitedly excavated a tuber, washed the dirt off it and grinned widely. "Yes, I have it!" I returned home with my prize, went straight to the kitchen, took out a knife and cut off a thin slice. I nibbled tentatively and swallowed, eager to experience this new taste. Within a few seconds, my tongue was burning as if with fire. The sensation of a thousand knives stabbing my throat caused me to choke immediately and begin gasping in horror as I struggled to breathe. My entire mouth and throat ached with the repetitive stabbing of the toxins in the raw taro root. The pain was incessant, and no amount of water or milk made it go away. After what felt like an eternity (probably about 5 minutes) I resolved never to eat that nasty taro again, and was dismayed at how naive I had been to zealously harvest and eat something I knew nothing about.

Figure 1. Taro (Colocasia esculenta) leaves, stems and tubers. Wikimedia Commons. © F. & K. Starr, 2013.
Colocasia esculenta [harvested plants - Wikimedia - F & K. Starr, 2013].jpg


Now, had I actually watched the entire episode of Totally Wild I'm sure they would have detailed how the roots were roasted in fire to eliminate the toxic alkaloid, or pounded and soaked in water, thus rendering the tuber a staple food of Oceania and Asia everywhere. And not every childhood plant adventure had such an outcome - I also fondly remember plundering my grandfather's gooseberries and snap peas, even those weird tamarind pods that used to fall out of the neighbours tree, and all without the poisoning or burning. But the point is had I known that taro was poisonous raw, I'd never have tried it. Secondly, if I had tested the raw tuber on my lip first, rather than opening the hatch first try, a great deal of mischief would have been avoided. Knowledge and experience together yield good outcomes when trying new foods, especially when they grow on the "deadly" continent!

Summary

Learning nature's bounty is part of the package to being self-sufficient, and a step towards busting the myth that everything 'out there' in Oz is going to kill us. A comment from Tim Low is pertinent:
"I find it extraordinary that most Australians hold an almost morbid fear that poison berries lurk in every forest grotto waiting to strike down the unsuspecting forager. In truth it is very difficult to be poisoned by plants. Most of the poisonous species warn of their danger by tasting bitter or acrid ... I have tasted many unfamiliar plants without ever being significantly poisoned. (My worst experience was a burning throat after biting a tuber.) ... By learning how to gather bush tucker, even in a token way, the forager comes to feel a special empathy for the bush, a sense that the forest is provident and friendly, that one is a part of some whole. This surely is how the Aborigines and other foragers saw their world. It may be something they can help us rediscover." (Tim Low, Bush Tucker, 1989: 9)
With such an abundance of native foods, most of them completely unknown to the average Australian, imagine how much satisfaction we may have to wander down the street, pointing out no less than half a dozen edibles growing as common 'weeds' or ornamentals? How much healthier and happier might we be if we learned to harvest what is available, to cut our grocery bills and take our children on the wild, exploratory journeys of yesteryear, before the ne'erdowells decided to start telling us it is 'dangerous' to travel anywhere outside nowadays, let alone with the naivete of a zealous 9 y/o!

I hope this will be a fun journey for all involved, and get us excited for a very promising future with Aussie bush tucker front and centre in the modern Australian diet.

Resources/Bibliography

Throughout this series, I shall be leaning heavily on the following field guides and comprehensive works on Australian bush food. These are worth the physical (or digital) archive for any amateur bush food forager. The older works below are obviously dated but still contain much useful information, especially noted historical use of some of the foods by the First Nations people during, and prior to, the colonial era. For culinary and other usages of the listed plants I relied upon the following:

Tim Low (1991). Wild Food Plants of Australia. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. Revised edition.​
If there was one single purchase I could recommend, it would be this one. Detailing some 180 edible plants, this pocket-sized field guide can fit into anyone's backpack or cargo pocket for hiking or camping. I am most indebted to this book for this series and it is my constant companion. It is lacking in Western Australian native foods, but does contain a helpful bibliography to take the interested student further.​
Tim Low (1989). Bush Tucker: Australia's Wild Food Harvest. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.​
This large, coffee-table-style book familiarised bush tucker to many Australian homes in the 1990s and then faded into obscurity. It is now out-of-print, rare and expensive to purchase, but goes into elaborate detail of many of Australia's common edibles. Not suitable as a field guide due to its size and weight. Also contains a substantial bibliography for further research into items of interest.​
Les Hiddins (2002). Bush Tucker Field Guide. Melbourne: Explore Australia.​
This lifetime work of 'The Bush Tucker Man' contains 175 items in all, including plants, grubs, fish, and animals. The major detraction with this work is it is almost exclusive to the Top End: the Kimberleys, Kakadu and Cape York, owing to Hiddins' military career interests in that area. All of these items are similarly available to members of his website [LINK] (AU$5/month).​
Mark Tucek (n.d.). TuckerBush.com.au. [LINK]
Teaming up with Noongar lorekeeper Marissa Verma, TuckerBush is a nursery of native Australian bush food plants. They have detailed entries of their various plants online. Based in Western Australia, they cover a general glaring hole in bush food knowledge from the western part of this continent.​
Joseph Maiden (1889). The Useful Native Plants of Australia. London: Trubner & Co.; Sydney: Turner & Henderson. [LINK]
A name that should be known by those with an interest in Australian plants, his now-dated book is important for its breadth of content and antiquity. It is let down by reliance on second-hand reports of First Nations plant usage, terse or non-existent plant descriptions (you are expected to be familiar with identification from Latin names only), and understandable lack of illustrations. Some of the botanical Latin names are obsolete; cross checking entries from this work with Atlas of Living Australia will generate up-to-date nomenclature.​
Medicinal preparations of common Australian food plants are an area I will detail cautiously and carefully, straying little from the established literature. My standard texts are as follows:

Erich V. Lassak & Tara McCarthy (2011). Australian Medicinal Plants: A Complete Guide to Identification and Usage. Sydney: Reed New Holland. Revised edition.​
A comprehensive work detailing several hundred Australian medicinal plants, sorted according to ailment category. Not all of the plants are illustrated, and photographs are often far removed from the pages detailing the plants and their uses. This work also lacks detailed information of preparation methods and/or dosages. It does, however, have a very substantial bibliography of useful source material and also lists active plant phytochemical properties where known.​
Cheryll Williams (2010-13). Medicinal Plants in Australia, Vols. I-IV. Dural: Rosenberg.​
A detailed, historical treatment of the interaction between colonial bush medicine and First Nation bush medicine in four dense volumes. Not arranged in a way which is suitable for a glance-reference, but it does detail at length the Australian medicines covered in it. Excellent bibliography to take the student further.​
Cheryll Williams (2020). Bush Remedies. Dural: Rosenberg.​
[Annotation forthcoming]​
T. K. Lim (2012-2016). Edible Medicinal and Non-Medicinal Plants, Vols. I-XII. New York: Springer.​
An exhaustive, twelve-volume work on many (but not all) of the world's edible plants. It has detailed treatment of plant phytochemicals, mechanisms of action, but lacking in preparation methods and dosages. Lim's work shall be referenced extensively for any mentioned Australian plants also covered in this series. Each entry in Lim's work has its own section of references, making it simple for the avid student to go further. This series is entirely unaffordable ($250 per book) for the casual bush food forager and best utilised in a State or University library.​