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? 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 organised by biome (coastal, fresshwater, open forest, rain forest, heaths/alpine, arid, and feral weeds), 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, weight and organisation. Contains a substantial bibliography for further research into items of interest.
Vivienne Hansen & John Horsfall (2019). Noongar Bush Tucker: Bush Food Plants and Fungi of the South-West of Western Australia. Crawley: UWA Publications.​
This beautifully illustrated book is a recent and important addition to a bush food forager’s arsenal. It details more than 250 plants and fungi found in traditional Noongar country in the south-west portion of Western Australia, from Geraldton to Esperance and the mountainous region inland between. Caution is recommended, however: Western Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 makes it an offense to harvest any part of any native Western Australian plant.
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, shellfish, crabs, 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 (AU$5/month) [LINK].
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 which I will occasionally reference. 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. Revised edition. Sydney: Reed New Holland.​
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.
Vivienne Hansen & John Horsfall (2016). Noongar Bush Medicine: Medicinal Plants of the South-West of Western Australia. Crawley: UWA Publications.​
This beautifully illustrated guide to Noongar herbalism is a critical resource for Western Australian plants. Limited to the Noongar of south-west Western Australia and cross-pollinated with much colonial herbalism, this book sets a standard for other First Nation tribes to compile and preserve for all time their own bush remedies. Adequately referenced with an ample bibliography to take the interested herbalist further.
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 (use the index to find items of interest), but Williams does detail at length the Australian medicines covered in it. Excellent bibliography, footnotes and references to take the interested student further.
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 medicinal and non-medicinal 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.

Lilly Pilly (Part 2)

Syzygium oleosum [blue lilly pilly - ATLAS - Daniel, 2020].jpeg

Blue lilly pilly. Atlas of Living Australia. © Daniel, 2020.

Names

Native lilly pillies hail from the native flowering myrtle genus Syzygium (S.). Some of them were formerly from genera Acmena [A.] and Eugenia [E.], although modern botanists no longer recognise any distinction (cf. Low, 1991: 74); all now fall under the Syzygium monniker. Common edible species include, but are by no means limited to: the common lilly pilly (S. [A. or E.] smithii); the white lilly pilly, blush satinash or cassowary gum (S. [A.] hemilamprum); the cherry alder or riberry (S. [A.] luehmannii); the creek lilly pilly, scrub cherry or creek satinash (S. australe); the magenta lilly pilly or brush cherry (S. paniculatum); and the beautiful blue lilly pilly or blue cherry (S. oleosum), pictured above. Other popular culivars include the 'powder-puff' lilly pilly (S. wilsonii), a tropical plant with showy flowers; the large-seeded kuranda quandong (S. kuranda); and the water cherry (S. tierneyanum). There are several species of the tropical north also worth mentioning, such as onion wood (S. alliiligneum), bell apple or water cherry (S. aquem) and the simply named native apple (S. eucalyptoides).

Australian lilly pillies are closely related to other fruiting Syzygium species common in tropical south-east Asia: the jambul, jambolan or java plum (S. cumini); the jambos (S. jambos); the malay apple (S. malaccense); the black-fruited gowok (S. polycephalum); and the java apple or waxy jambu (S. samarangense). These relatives will not be otherwise covered here other than in the medicinal section (for details on these other fruits see Lim, 2012 III: 738-742, 745-766, 769-786).

Habitat and Range

The lilly pilly is one of Australia's most iconic native fruits and my first foray into Aussie bush tucker as a child, hence why this article is my first. It was the first native fruit tasted by Captain Cook's exploratory crew in the Botany Bay region and a much enjoyed snackfood by First Nation tribes on the east coast for thousands of years prior (Low, 1989: 62-63). The dangling clusters of glossy purple-magenta to duller white-pink or matte red berries look appealing to the eye upon the dark green foliage of these often majestic rainforest trees.

One will find lilly pilly at home in tropical, subtropical and temperate forests the length of the eastern coast of Australia, from Cape York to the Dandenongs of Victoria, and as garden ornamentals elsewhere (e.g. Western Australia, where they are not native in the south). The various species are at home in the wild particularly along creek banks, behind the dunes at the beach, in the lush tropical rainforest in north Queensland and wet sclerophyll forest between them, up to altitudes of 800 m, being a lover of rich, well-drained loamy soil. Various cultivars of Syzygium thrive in modern suburbia, being used frequently as hedging, screening, and ornamental street trees. All species of lilly pilly will tolerate full sun to significant shade.

Figure 1. Distribution of Syzygium (all species, including former Acmena species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Syzygium distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Shrub or tree, typically from 1.5 to 30+ metres in height
  • Small, tough, arrow-head shaped leaves 3-6 cm in length
  • Pink, red or copperish-coloured new growth leaves in early spring (August-October)
  • Puffy white or pink flowers emerging in clusters which look similar to eucalyptus flowers, emerging after new growth (November-February)
  • Psyllid damage on leaves (not always present)
  • Fruit is mostly red or pink-magenta; rarely blue (S. oleosum) or white (S. hemilamprum)
  • Fruit is dull matte or glossy
  • Fruit exhibits 4 or 5 lobes at the tip, and/or a prominent dimple
  • Fruit feels crunchy, with spongy white flesh and a single cherry-like seed
Lilly pillies vary greatly in size and shape, from the monstrous 30m rainforest giants to 75cm dwarf ornamental cultivars available in nurseries across the country. One can often identify a lilly pilly at the beginning of spring (August-September) because of their bright pink to copper-orange new growth, which turns to dark green with age.

Figure 2. New growth on a magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum) against a background of mature foliage. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium panticulatum [new growth] 20221119_143521 sml.jpg


Figure 3. New growth on a common lilly pilly (S. smithii) against a background of mature foliage. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium luehmanii [new growth] 20221119_143942 sml.jpg


Syzygium species are especially prone to attack by psyllids (pimple gall); psyllid warts on the leaves are thus another identifying feature of these native myrtles.

Figure 4. Psyllid damage on new growth of a Sydney magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum). Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium australe [psyllids] 20221211_160333 sml.jpg


New spring growth is often followed in October-January by pom-poms of white or pink flowers (rarely, red) with a delightfully sweet fragrance, attracting native bees, insects and honey-eater birds. It is worth noting that lilly pilly can put out flowers at any time of the year, especially if selectively pruned, and thus can be inspected for flowers and fruit at any time, although most flowers and fruit will appear in mid- to late-summer (December-March).

Figure 5. The puffy, pink flowers on a common lilly pilly (S. smithii). © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium luehmanii [flowers] 20221119_143837 sml.jpg


Figure 6. White flowers on the magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum). Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM 2022.
Syzygium panticulatum [flowers] 20221217_164317 sml.jpg


Figure 7. White flowers of the common lilly pilly (S. smithii). Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Cumming, 2022.

Syzygium smithii [flowers - ATALS - R. Cumming, 2022].jpeg


After pollination, the flowers will turn into cream pods which eventually mature to form the wads of dangling fruits, about 1-4 cm in length. Ripe fruit will turn white, whitish-pink, matte red or bright pink, magenta or purple-blue, usually around late summer through autumn (February-March), but some species can fruit earlier or later than that. Large trees can bear thousands of the fruits, resulting in copious amounts of dropped fruit below the tree. Syzygium fruits have four or five lobes expanding on the base of the fruit, are usually glossy, with a crisp, spongy texture, sour-acid-apple in flavour with a single, cherry-like seed in the centre. Former Acmena and Eugenia genera fruits have a dimple at the base, are usually matte or dull, have a sweeter apple flavour and usually a softer, floury or mealy texture with a single seed. Due to the plethora of subspecies, the flavour of two trees growing next to one another can often differ markedly. Thus, if a tree in your yard or neighbourhood tastes horrible, try elsewhere!

Figure 8. Immature fruit on just-pollinated flowers of a common lilly pilly (S. smithii). Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium luehmanii [fruit buds] 20221119_143754 sml.jpg


Figure 9. Unripe magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum) fruit. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium panticulatum [unripe fruit] 20221119_143533 sml.jpg


Figure 10. Creek lilly pilly (S. australe) flower & fruit. Note the protruding basal lobes, glossy skin and light pink colour. Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2023.

Syzygium australe [flowers & fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230114_175500 sml.jpg


Figure 11. Cherry alder (S. luehmannii) fruit. Note the matte pink-red colour, but it still has 5 discernible basal lobes. Atlas of Living Australia. © J. Vincent, 2022.
Syzygium luehmannii [fruit - ATLAS - J. Vincent, 2022].jpeg


Figure 12. Common lilly pilly (S. smithii) fruit. Note the paler white-pink colour, matte skin and basal dimple and no lobes. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2013.
Syzygium smithii [fruit - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2013].jpeg


Figure 13. White fruit of the white lilly pilly (S. hemilamprum). Atlas of Living Australia. © Anon., 1997.
Syzygium hemilamprum [fruit - ATLAS - Anon, 1997].jpeg


Culinary Uses

Lilly pilly has been cultivated as an ornamental for many decades. Unfortunately, this selective breeding regime has often favoured foliage and flowers over fruiting, meaning that many ornamental varieties available in nursuries may have inferior quality (exceedingly insipid or sour) fruit. Uncultivated species, such as those frequented by indigenous Australians in rainforest, creek or beach settings, can often have superior fruit, both in terms of flavour, nutritional value and size.

Lim cites two nutritional studies as follows:
Riberry (S. luehmannii) per 100 g: water 82 g, energy 84 kJ, protein 0.96 g, fat 0.4 g, ash 0.8 g, total dietary fibre 6.8 g, total sugars 0.42 g, minerals – Ca 100 mg, Fe, 0.9 mg, Mg 48 mg, P, 49 mg, K 250 mg, Na 11 mg, Zn 0.2 mg, Cu 0.3 mg, niacin 0.2 mg (Lim, 2012 III: 768)

Common lilly pilly (S. smithii) per 100 g: energy 18 kJ, moisture, 93.4 g, total dietary fibre 1.1 g, nitrogen 0.05 g, protein 0.3 g, fat 0.1 g, ash 0.2 g, calcium 8 mg, copper 0.2 mg, iron 0.1 mg, magnesium 3 mg, potassium 35 mg, sodium 2 mg, zinc 0.1 mg, niacin equivalents 0.1 mg and vitamin C 1 mg (Lim, 2012 III: 788)
My experience of various species of lilly pilly draws a distinction in flavour between the Syzygium species and the former Acmena [Eugenia] species no longer recognised by botanists. The tart and often crisp Syzygium fruits make excellent jams and jellies (for recipe, see this article courteousy of ToeNailz) due to their high pectin content. They can be served fresh, de-seeded, and added to summer salads, fruit punch or drinks for their striking and colourful magenta tones and tart, sour, apple-like flavour. Some companies have used the fruits to make fruit wine and gin, a very suitable application of these flavoursome fruits.

Figure 14. What to expect inside the juicy fruit of a magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum). The texture is similar to apple but extremely tart, with a single seed surrounded with a spongy, white core material (centre). Newington. © JPM, 2022.
Syzygium panticulatum [cut fruit] 20221217_164156 sml.jpg


Former Acmena [Eugenia] species are far sweeter with soft flesh; I actually prefer these fresh off the tree! They can be used to make drinks, wine, jams, jellies and sauces lacking the tartness of the juicy S. panticulatum or S. australe fruits.

Figure 15. What to expect inside a common lilly pilly (S. smithii) fruit. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2023.
Syzygium smithii [cut fruit] 20230212_130500 sml.jpg


The flowers can be soaked in water to extract their sweet, aromatic nectar, but be aware of insects who also call the flowers home; these can be removed by straining the liquid with a fine-mesh seive.

Medicinal Uses

Cheryll Williams (2010 I: 257) laments the lack of studies exploring the medicinal properties of Australia's fruiting lilly pillies, saying:
Little has been done with regard to investigations of Australian Syzygium species and the only way to gain some idea of their pharmacological potential is to review overseas studies. It is lamentable to see such a diverse native genus languish pharmacologically.
With that said, it is known that Australian Syzygium fruits are high in anthocyanine phenolic compounds, which are potent antioxidants, although their vitamin C levels are not as high as other native fruits (see table 1. in Netzel et al., 2007: 341). Production of lilly pilly fruit wines are probably the best way to extract their anthocyanine phenolic compounds (Williams, 2010 I: 250). Lim (2012 III: 744) says of S. australe: "Brush cherry has similar antioxidant levels to blueberries. Its anthocyanins were malvidin based glucosides and malvidin 3, 5-diglucoside was the main anthocyanin pigment." S. luehmannii had the same praise (Lim, 2012 III: 768). Lilly pilly leaves and fruit can also be drunk as a tea to alleviate colds and flus.

Leaf and fruit alcohol or ethanol extracts have proven antibiotic effects (Williams, 2010 I: 257), although I would ponder whether this comes from the plant extracts or the alcohols. The tropical Asian jambul (S. cumini) has been one of the most medicinally researched of these trees and fruit infusions (teas) or decoctions have found proven usefulness as an antifungal and antibacterial suitable for internal or external use. This plant (S cumini) and S. samarangense also have proven anti-diabetic effects, provoking insulin production in the pancreas (Williams, 2010 I: 258-259). The PDR recommends dosages of 30 dried and powdered seeds (1.9 g) for diabetic and gastrointestinal issues (Gruenwald et al., 2000: 429-430). The bark of jambul (S. cumini) is also approved in the PDR for use as a treatment for diarrhea, inflammation of the mouth or pharynx, and topical use for skin inflammation. Dosage was listed at 1-2 tsp of dried, powdered bark boiled in 150 ml water, strained and drunk, gargled or applied as a wash to inflammed areas. It is likely that Australian lilly pillies may share these medicinal applications to varying extents.

Other Uses

All native Syzygium have been used as popular hedging and ornamental plants for decades and excel as wind breaks and screening plants due to their dense foliage from trunk to tip.

Common lilly pilly (S. smithii) is mentioned as having timber suitable for general construction: fittings, frames and flooring; magenta lilly pilly (S. panticulatum) would have similar uses for the timber, as it can grow into a very large tree with a thick trunk suitable for planks, tool handles and canoes. The First Nation tribes of North Queensland often used Syzygium timber for boomerangs, shields and clubs (Maiden, 1889: 530-532).

Maiden (1889: 29; S. australe referred to under the old latin name Eugenia myrtifolia) includes a formula for the fruit's potential use as a litmus test: "The colouring matter, which is soluble in alcohol and ether-alcohol, but not in pure ether [ethanol], is precipitated by lead-acetate, decolourised by reducing agents, and recovers its red colour on exposure to the air, just like litmus and the red colour of wine."

Caution

Small spiders and insects are wont to make their home under the lobes and inside dimples of some fruits. Always check before eating straight from the tree (personal experience). It is always a good idea to wash fruit in water before consumption. Virtually all species of Syzygium have edible fruits, but not all are palatable. Learn where the best trees are in your area and keep going back year after year.

References/Further Reading

Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium alliiligneum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium aquem." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium australe." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium eucalyptoides." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium hemilamprum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium kuranda." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium luehmannii." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium oleosum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium panticulatum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium smithii." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium tierneyanum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Syzygium wilsonii." [LINK]
C_ck, Ian (2011), Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Australia. EOLSS Publishers [LINK]
Gruenwald et al. (2000), "Jambolan (Syzygium cumini)." PDR for Herbal Medicine (2nd edition; Montvale: Medical Economics Company), pp. 429-430.
Hiddins (2002), "Cassowary Gum (Acmena [Syzygium] hemilampra)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002), "Onion Wood (Syzygium alliiligneum)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002), "Water Cherry, Bell Cherry (Syzygium aqueum)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002), "Native Apple (Syzygium eucalyptoides)." [LINK]
Lim (2012), Edible Plants, Vol. III, pp. 738-788.
Low (1989), Bush Tucker, pp. 62-63.
Low, (1991), Wild Food, pp. 74-77.
Maiden (1889), Useful Native Plants, p. 29 & 530-532.
Netzel, Michael, et al. (2007), "
Native Australian fruits — a novel source of antioxidants for food." Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies 8(3): 339-346 [LINK]
Williams (2010), Medicinal Plants, Vol. I, pp. 240-261, esp. 257-261.

Karkalla/Pigface (Part 3)

C. glauscecens [Plant - South Head] sml.jpg

Karkalla growing at the edge of the world, South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.

Who can miss those bright pink flowers with prominent yellow stamens amidst a mat of tough, fleshy leaves? Welcome to the world of karkalla, one of Australia's tastiest native fruits!

Names

Commonly called karkalla in the southern parts Australia by the indigenous peoples, this resilient succulent creeper is otherwise known as pigface and sea fig because of the shape and flavour of their ripe fruits (Low, 1989: 57-59), although one source now lost to me suggested it may have come from an Afrikaans slang word for their version of the same plant, 'bigvys'. Also common in southern Africa and south America, Australia has at least four native species, three naturalised introduced species and two edible look-alikes. These plants have been classified as the genus Carpobrotus (C.), Greek for "edible fruits", although older literature such as Maiden and von Mueller may still refer to them by their older African taxon, Mesembryanthemum. Karkalla proper is C. rossii, found mostly in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania; common pigface (C. glaucescens) in coastal NSW and Queensland; coastal pigface (C. virescens) in southern, coastal Western Australia; and inland pigface (C. modestus) can be found in arid, interior regions across WA, SA, NT and western NSW.

The two native look-alikes are Sarcozona praecox, an inland succulent with a somewhat more erect habit (Low, 1991: 30; Hansen & Horsfall, 2019: 302-303), and round-leaf pigface Disphyma crassifolium (round-leaf pigface), which has a much smaller, rounded plant profile overall, as detailed below (Low, 1991: 30; Hansen & Horsfall, 2019: 292-293). A South African interloper, the hottentot fig (C. edulis), also called ice plant in the USA and elsewhere (Deane, 2022) and a Chilean one, the sea fig (C. chilensis), round out the most common culprits to be discovered during foraging for these delicious fruits.

Habitat and Range

Karkalla is a coast- and salt-lover by nature; wherever you find sand and salinity you will be sure to find this hardy creeping succulent. Its range seems sparser the further north you travel from the Tropic of Capricorn, however you will find it abundantly in coastal regions south of Yeppoon in the east and Coral Bay in the west, including coastal Tasmania and the Great Australian Bight. Look for it at the coastal verge between the raging surf and the first line of trees. It is happy to clamber over seaside rocks, escarpments and pots and is a popular ornamental in gardens everywhere (such as my apartment common property). Karkalla has a deep root system, far more elaborate than their surface stems and branches, and can easily take over entire areas as the exclusive botanical inhabitant if conditions are favourable to its existence. The inland look-alike species may be found in arid regions across West and South Australia.

Figure 1. Distribution of Carpobrotus (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Carpobrotus distribution.png


Figure 2. Distribution of Sarcozona (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Sarcozona distribution.png


Figure 3. Distribution of Disphyma (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Disphyma distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Thick, succulent, triangular leaves, 5-12 cm in length, usually green with a pink or red tinge (desert species may be greyish- or purple-tinged and wrinkly)
  • Leaves grow oppositely, two per node
  • Subsequent leaf nodes are angled at 90° to the previous node
  • Stems form sprawling, ground-covering mats
  • Stem and leaf sap is clear or inconspicuous
  • Pink-petaled flowers 5-12 cm in diameter with a white or yellow throat, dozens to hundreds of tiny yellow anthers and an 'octopus legs' stigma in the centre.
  • Fruit has two to four triangular horned lobes on the top
  • Fruit may still have dried flower parts attached
  • Fruit turns red or yellow when fully ripe
  • Fruit flesh resembles green kiwifruit dotted with tiny brown-black seeds
  • Fruit emits a pleasant, fragrant scent after picking
Besides its unique habitat usually on the coastal verge, especially just behind dunes, but also in desert sands, karkalla is easily identified for its triangular, fleshy leaves, sprawling mass of creeping stems, and usually bright pink, sometimes red, orange, yellow or white, flowers with bright yellow or white stamens in the centre.

Figure 4. Karkalla (C. rossii) foliage. Note the triangular shape, fleshy texture and occasional red tinge. Great Ocean Road, VIC. © JPM, 2022.
Carpobrotus rossii [Leaves - Great Ocean Road, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 5. Common pigface (C. glaucescens) foliage. South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.
C. glauscecens [Plant & flowers - South Head] sml.jpg


Figure 6. Desert pigface foliage (S. praecox). When pigface lacks water the foliage will wrinkle, a common feature in the desert species. Atlas of Living Australia. © I. Dudley, 2022.

Sarcozona praecox [plant - ATLAS - I. Dudley, 2022].jpeg


Figure 7. Distinctly stubby, rounded foliage of the aptly-named round-leaf pigface (D. crassifolium). Rottnest Island, WA. © JPM, 2023.
Disphyma crassifolium [foliage - Rottnest Is.] 20230302_112820 sml.jpg


Flowers appear in early spring (Aug-Sep, later further south, often with a second flowering in Jan-Mar), often as an impressive display of bright pink with the golden centres and attract copious numbers of bees and other pollinators. Most species' flowers are a light or dark pink, while others can be yellow-white, usually with a lighter white or yellow 'throat' towards the centre of the flower.

Figure 8. Pink-purple flowers of common pigface (C. glaucescens). The other native species (C. rossii; C. modestus and C. virescens) flowers are virtually identical. South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.
C. glauscecens [Flower - South Head] sml.jpg


Figure 9. Yellow-white flowers of the non-native hottentot fig (C. edulis). Note the hundreds of anthers and 'octopus legs' pistil, centre. Atlas of Living Australia. © A. Bonnitcha, 2014.
Carpobrotus edulis [flower - ATLAS - A. Bonnitcha, 2014].jpeg


Figure 10. Round-leaf pigface (D. crassifolium) putting on a show! Note the more prominent white throats. These flowers are also smaller than Carpobrotus species. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Lawrenz, 2008.
Disphyma crassifolium [flowers - ATLAS - R. Lawrenz, 2008].jpeg


Pollinated flowers wither into a soft green fruit with two to four leaf-like lobes, giving pigface its English name (I don't see the resemblance, personally). The fruits will take two or three months to fully ripen, and many species will change colour when the fruit is ready to be picked, ranging from green with pink edges or blushing, to yellow, to a vibrant red. Many ornamental species have been bred for their flowers, sometimes resulting in fruits that do not change colour very much. In this case, look for the withered flower heads as markers of the fruit, as well as withering at the fruit stem indicating it is ripe, or possibly past ripeness.

Figure 11. Unripe fruit of common pigface (C. glaucescens). Note the green colour and dried flower petals in the centre. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2021.
Carpobrotus fruit [green].jpeg


Figure 12. Ripe fruit of common pigface (C. glaucescens) turn pinkish-red and wither slightly. Unripe fruit, centre, are green, displaying their distinctive fleshy horns. Fruits of the other native species (C. rossii; C. modestus and C. virescens) look virtually identical but may be brighter red in colour. Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus glaucescens [fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230114_180156 sml.jpg


Figure 13. Karkalla (C. rossii) ready to pick. Boyd's Tower, Edrom, NSW. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus rossii [ripe fruit - Boyd's Tower, Edrom] 20230307_133506 sml.jpg


Figure 14. Ripe fruit of the South African hottentot fig (C. edulis) exhibiting the distinctive lobes and yellow pigmentation. Wikimedia Commons. © Llez, 2006.
Carpobrotus edulis [fruit - Wikimedia - Llez, 2006].jpg


Figure 15. Ripe fruits of round-leaf pigface (D. crassifolium). The fruits of this species are very small, often less than 1 cm, and usually not worth harvesting. Atlas of Living Australia. © Mike, 2019.
Disphyma crassifolium [fruit - ATLAS - Mike, 2019].jpeg


Culinary Uses

Karkalla fruits are absolutely delicious, tasting somewhat like gooey, salty figs. Ripe fruit will snap straight off near the base when pulled and immediately emit a pleasant, fruity aroma. Peel the fruit across the belly near the lower stem and then squeeze or suck out the sweet, salty, sticky and seedy interior. Alternatively, grasp the fruit by the horns and squeeze out towards the other end; the flesh and juice will pop right out into your mouth! They are best eaten fresh, but can be dried and reconstituted. Add them to smoothies, jams, jellies, icecream or anything else that would enjoy a surprising, salty, fruity fig flavour, such as a cheeseboard or green salad. Avoid fruit specimens that are exceedingly wrinkly, smelly, rotten, fermenting or otherwise damaged.

Williams (2010 I: 21) assigns the following nutritional information:
the fruit contains good amounts of sodium (around 231mg/100g), potassium (207mg/100g), calcium (173mg/100g) and magnesium (95mg/100g) – with small amounts of iron, zinc, and copper.

Figure 16. Pluck ripe fruits near the stem and they will snap right off into your hand and emit a pleasant, fruity aroma (C. glaucescens, pictured). Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus glaucescens [picked fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230114_174522 sml.jpg


Figure 17. Squeeze the fruit from the 'horn' end straight into your mouth and enjoy! Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus glaucescens [squeezed fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230114_174533 sml.jpg


Figure 18. Freshly harvested karkalla (C. rossii) growing abundantly at Cocora Beach, Eden, NSW. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus rossii [harvested fruit - Cocora Beach, Eden] 20230307_180734 sml.jpg

Figure 19. What to expect inside karkalla (C. rossii). Boyd's Tower, Edrom, NSW. © JPM, 2023.
Carpobrotus rossii [cut fruit - Boyd's Tower, Edrom] 20230307_133837 sml.jpg


Figure 20. Freshly harvested and peeled fruit of common pigface (C. glaucescens) resembling kiwifruit, found wild on South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2021.
Carpobrotus [Peeled] rsz.jpg


The leaves of all the above-mentioned plants can also be eaten as a textured, salty green, especially the smaller round-leaved pigface (D. crassifolium). Leaves are best cooked at high temperature, either boiled or grilled in stir fries, or on a BBQ with meat, the traditional indigenous method of preparation. In my experience, the leaves and the outer skins of the fruits have a tendency to be astringent and unpalatable raw (and extremely salty!), but some individual plants are more pleasant than others.

The best specimens I have harvested so far were growing happily, and unmolested until I found them, on a rocky area near Sandy Bay beach in Hobart, Tasmania. Most of the locals had no idea they were a native Aussie bush food and perfectly safe to eat (the specimens near the Hawk Neck penguin rookery, Tasmania, were also delicious). Your trip to the beach should never be complete without checking whether the native karkallas, growing abundantly behind the surf Australia wide, are in full bloom or full fruit!

Medicinal Uses

Hansen & Horsfall (2016: 52-53; 2019: 105) list multiple traditional cures made from coastal pigfaces (in WA, C. virescens and C. rossii). Crushed leaf infusions (teas) were used for diarrhoea, dysentry, and stomach cramps, as well as a mouthwash/gargle for sore throat and other mouth infections. Crushed leaf juice can be applied externally akin to Aloe vera juice to relieve burns, bites, stings, sunburn and fungal skin infections.

Duke (2002: 393) lists nine medicinal properties of the South African invasive, C. edulis, properties which are undoubtedly compatible to the Australian natives: antibacterial; antiseptic; antiviral; astringent; diuretic; fungicide; hemostat; laxative; and a vasoconstrictor. One of his sources is more detailed in preparations (Hutchings et al.,1996: 93; Van Wyk et al., 1st ed. 1997: 70-71 [2nd ed. 2009: 78-79] is also cited as a source but this book is not available to me):
Juice from pounded leaves is used as a gargle for sore throats, diphtheria and thrust and to treat digestive troubles, diarrhoea and dysentery ... . Also applied to ringworm, severe weeping infantile eczema, burns and scalds, and applied diluted to the mouth for sprue [celiac disease]. Fruit infusions are taken by Khoi women during pregnancy to ensure an easy birth and leaf sap is smeared over the head of a new-born child to make it nimble and strong.

Leaf sap is effective against blue-bottle stings when applied directly. Sap from the plant is mildly antiseptic and syrup made from the fruit is said to have laxative properties.

Mixtures of dried leaves and stems yield catechol tannins. These readily form phlobaphenes during the preparation of aqueous and alcoholic extracts of the plant. Malic and citric acids and their calcium salts are present in the sap. The presence of mesembrine is reported but not confirmed. Red-violet betalains and leucoanthcyanidins have been isolated. Juice from stems and leaves is used in patented drugs and pesticides.
The laxative effects were certainly well known to early colonial-era explorers of Australia's barren inland region, as astutely recorded in the journal of one E. M. Curr during his 1840s wanderings of central Victoria: "On this trip it was exceedingly hot during the day, though not at night, and the pig's-faces were covered with ripe fruit, so, naturally, as we had been living on mutton and damper for months, we indulged in them rather more than we should have done, and suffered in consequence a smart indisposition for a few hours" (cited in Low, 1989: 58).

Williams (2010 I: 21) is very helpful with her additions to the above:
An old remedy for tuberculosis mixed the leaf juice [of South African C. edulis] with water, honey and olive oil. Doubtless the Australian plants gained a similar therapeutic reputation. The mucilaginous leaf juice was popular as a healing agent. In Australia it was found to be particularly efficacious for soothing irritable midge bites and marine stinger injuries. The latter, which can be extremely painful, are sometimes life threatening. The anti-irritant properties of the plant are interesting, as various plants in the family (including the genus Carpobrotus) contain mesembrine. This alkaloid has mild anaesthetic effects and is chemically related to cocaine.
Maiden (1889: 194) also noted similarly that pigface was "...used in South Africa. There the expressed juice of the succulent leaves taken internally checks dysentery, and acts as a mild diuretic, while it is also, for its antiseptic property, used as an excellent gargle in malignant sore throat, violent salivation, and aphthae [mouth and throat ulcers], or in the form of a lotion in burns and scalds."

Overall, it is a very useful medicinal plant in addition to its edibility profile and one easily attained across much of Australia's landmass. That its mashed leaves and juice can be used to ease jellyfish stings and horsefly/mosquito bites in the absence of vinegar is worth knowing by every beach-loving Australian.

Other Uses

Williams (2010 I: 21) makes note of the cellular gums of Carpobrotus and other related plant taxa (e.g. Mesembryanthemum and Aptenia) for their potential industrial use as:
emulsifying, gelling, adhesive, lubrication, binding or coating agents. They have diverse applications for food processing and packaging – as well as in the pharmaceutical, veterinary, personal care and cosmetic industries. These gums are also suited for manufacturing many products of industrial importance: paper, adhesives, inks, textiles, paints, ceramics, explosives, various types of cleaning products (including detergents), fire-fighting agents, agricultural chemicals (including pesticides and fungicides) – as well as in oil and gas production. In addition, they can be used in photographic and lithographic processes.
The exact formulations for such uses are the properties of several patents which may or may not be expired.

Caution!

All species of Carpobrotus are extremely high in oxalic acid (approximately 12% fresh weight; Williams 2010 I: 21), especially the leaves and fruit skins. Raw consumption of the leaves of this plant should be sparing. Cooking at high temperatures, e.g. stir fry, oven or open flame roasting/grilling, or boiling, is the safest way to denature these potentially toxic substances.

References/Further Reading

Atlas of Living Australia, "Carpobrotus edulis." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Carpobrotus glaucescens." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Carpobrotus modestus." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Carpobrotus virescens." [LINK]

Atlas of Living Australia, “Carpobrotus rossii.” [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Disphyma crassifolium." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Sarcozona praecox." [LINK]

Deane, Green (2022), "Newsletter #493." [LINK]
Duke, James (2020), Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (2nd ed.; Boca Raton: CRC Press), p. 393.
Hansen & Horsfall (2016), Noongar Bush Medicine, pp. 52-53.
Hansen & Horsfall (2019), Noongar Bush Tucker, pp. 104-105 (C. rossii & C. virescens); pp. 182-183 (C. modestus); pp. 292-293 (D. crassifolium); pp. 302-303 (S. praecox).
Hiddins (2002), "Pigface (Carpobrotus sp.)." [LINK]
Hutchings, Anne, et al. (1996), Zulu Medicinal Plants: An Inventory. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, p. 93. [LINK]
Low (1989), Bush Tucker, pp. 57-59.
Low, (1991), Wild Food, p. 30.
Maiden (1889), Useful Native Plants, pp. 44 & 194.
Van Wyk, Ben-Erik, Bosch Van Oudtshoorn and Nigel Gerike (2009), Medicinal Plants of South Africa. 2nd. Edition; Pretoria: Briza Publications, pp. 78-79.
Williams, Medicinal Plants, Vol. I, pp. 20-22.

Blueberry Lily (Part 4)

Dianella brevicaulis [fruit cluster - Newington] 20221208_105010 sml.jpg

Tantalising, aren't they? Dianella brevicaulis. Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Some plants go to a measure of effort to make themselves known to passersby. In the off-season, a bushwalker or forager wouldn't think twice about considering the native flax lily as an edible: it just looks like a clump of thick grass. But enter spring and these unassuming plants bloom with an abundance of six-petaled blue-purple flowers, followed in quick succession by appealing, bright purple berries.

Names

This native edible commonly goes by two English names: flax lily and blueberry lily, indicating the two primary uses of the plant, detailed below. It can be found in nurseries under the genus Dianella, with many subspecies, not all of which are edible/palatable. Varieties you might want to look out for if you intend to grow this plant at home as an ornamental bushfood are D. congesta, D. caerulea, D. longifolia (formerly D. laevis), D. revoluta, D. pavopennacea, and D. bambusifolia (Low, Wild Foods, p.113). To Low's list I will also add D. brevicaulis, easily identified in suburbia because of its thin, 'spidery' flower stems and long leaves. All of these aforementioned varieties have the tastiest berries, although these can vary from plant to plant. Avoid D. tasmanica; although D. tasmanica has the largest berries, it is the most irritating species.

Habitat and Range

Flax lily is extremely common, both in the bush and across suburbia. You will find growing abundantly in forests, dry and wet, up and down the northern, eastern and southern coasts, from Cape York and the Kimberleys, to Victoria and Tasmania, and across large swathes of western Australia. In cities, you will find them as an ornamental planter in gardens literally everywhere, from pots and verges in public buildings to formal gardens to nature strips and parks. Some varieties, like D. congesta and D. longifolia, grow into karkalla (pigface) territory at the coastal verge, and you can find these two species in particular growing behind beaches around the Australian coastline. D. tasmanica, the species to be avoided, is most common in Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales.

Figure 1. Distribution of Dianella (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Dianella distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Long, rough-textured, lance-shaped strappy leaves 30-120 cm long, usually with pointed tips and a central, longitudinal vein
  • Leaves grow tight, yet alternatively, from a central woody stem emerging from the ground
  • Flowers emerge on tall stems, 70-150 cm long, often standing well above the foliage (except D. brevicaulis, its leaves are taller than its flower stems)
  • Flowers are blue-purple (rarely, white) with six, swept-back petals, six bright yellow anthers and a single central white pistil
  • Flowers set into small green berries
  • Berries turn blue-purple when fully ripe (rarely, black).
  • Berries have a blue-white, spongy flesh with 3-8 black, nutty-flavoured seeds inside
Look for a large clump of thick, grass-like leaves about 30-120cm tall, growing alternatively from a woody central stem.

Figure 2. D. caerulea foliage with stem. Leaves emerge alternatively, but bunched very tightly that they look opposite. Waterloo Park, Marsfield. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella longifolia [leaf] 20221114_113452 sml.jpg


Figure 3. The long foliage of D. brevicaulis makes it look like lomandra (see part 5 of this series), except when its berry season! It is quite a common ornamental planting in suburbia. Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella brevicaulis [plant - Newington] 20221208_111103 sml.jpg


Figure 4. Closeup of the leaf underside (D. caerulea), showing the prominent vein. Leaves also have coarse undersides and the edges can cut the skin if rubbed the wrong way. Waterloo Park, Marsfield. © JPM, 2022.

Dianella longifolia [leaf] 20221114_113551 cropped.jpg


Figure 5. Woody stems of D. caerulea emerging from the ground. Waterloo Park, Marsfield. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella longifolia [stem] 20221114_113611 sml.jpg


Flowers appear in early spring (Aug-Sept) by the dozen on long stems that can rise 1 to 1.5m above the plant, but often droop over into the leaves from their own weight. For the species D. brevicaulis, the flower stems are distinctive, threaded 'spidery' netting amidst their long foliage. Flowers are typically blue to a purple-brown with six petals that sweep backwards towards their own stem, although a few species can have white petals. They have six bright yellow anthers facing outwards with a single, central white pistil.

Figure 6. D. congesta flowers rising up on stems well above the plant. Most varieties have purple flowers of this type with six, swept-back petals and six prominent yellow anthers and a single, white, central pistil. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella [flowers 2] sml.jpg


Figure 7. The flowers of D. congesta can also occur in a deformed, dense clump at the end of the flower stalk. Atlas of Living Australia. © Sypser, 2015.
Dianella congesta [plant - ATLAS - Sypser, 2015].jpeg


Figure 8. White D. tasmanica flowers. Not all flowers of this inedible species are pure white; they may be pale mauve or purple with a white edge. Wikimedia Commons.
Dianella [Flowers white].jpeg


After wind pollination, flowers turn into green berries which will ripen to a vivid blue-purple. The berries are small, spherical, usually 5-15mm in length, with a soft, spongy texture and three to eight crunchy, black, nutty seeds inside. Fruits are typically fully ripe by late November through January, depending on the location; southern species may ripen later than northern ones, sometimes as late as March or April.

Figure 9. Ripe fruit cluster on D. caerulea. These were some of the largest berries I have yet seen for a Dianella species (see figure 13 for scale). The Forts, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella caerulea [fruit - The Forts, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 10. Rare black berries on what was identified as D. tasmanica (perhaps incorrectly), edibility unknown. Atlas of Living Australia. © Tapirlord, 2021.
Dianella tasmanica [black berries - ATLAS - Tapirlord, 2021].jpeg


Figure 11. Berries on D. brevicaulis, showing the nestled, spidery stems amidst its long, lomandra-like strappy leaves. Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella brevicaulis [fruit cluster - Newington] 20221208_111112 sml.jpg


Figure 12. Ripe, irritating fruit of D. tasmanica. You will notice there is basically no difference between irritating and palatable varieties! Wikimedia Commons.
Dianella [Fruit 1].jpeg


Uses

I have enjoyed Dianella berries fresh as a bush food snack, although the best authorities (e.g. Tim Low) caution against eating too many at one time. I have eaten 100+ berries of wild specimens growing in the Newington/Olympic Park area without any ill effects whatsoever, albeit cooked (see figures 14-16 below). The fruits have a spongy texture that 'pops' in the mouth and are generally quite pleasant with a fragrant taste. The black seeds inside add a delicious nutty crunch, although some liken them to chewing sand. In my experience, old berries that look shriveled, damaged or retain any green colour should be avoided; they have a lingering insipid bitterness to them which is the sensation reported in the irritating berries of D. tasmanica in southern climes. Look for berries that are glossy, plump and have unbroken skin (see figure 9 above).

Figure 13. What to expect inside a Dianella berry. Ripe fruit have spongy, blue-white flesh and are dotted with 3-8 crunchy, black seeds with a nutty taste. This large and absolutely delicious specimen of D. caerulea was at The Forts, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella caerulea [cut fruit - The Forts, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 14. Another serving of large D. congesta berries I recently discovered in Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella congesta [huge berries] 20221217_150938 sml.jpg


I am yet to attempt turning Dianella berries into jams or conserves due to the caution regarding quantity. It may be that cooking destroys the insipid irritant in D. tasmanica but I cannot confirm this at this time. The blue colouring does remain while cooking, however; it does not turn reddish like true blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) do. Dianella berries also retain their spongy texture after cooking and will float due to their internal air pocket. To extract the most colour and flavour for cooking, I recommend crushing the berries thoroughly with a few drops of water in a mortar & pestle before adding to your recipe mix, e.g. cakes, tarts, pastry or even soufflé. The colour alone is incredible in baked goods.

Figure 15. A good harvest of D. congesta, D. longifolia and D. brevicaulis from my local area. Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella caerulea [harvested berries - Newington] 20221208_121738 sml.jpg


Figure 16. Crushed raw Dianella berries with about 1 tsp water. I see a great future for this dye as a native food colouring. The granite mortar does not do it any justice! Collected from Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella caerulea [berry paste] 20221208_122821 sml.jpg


Figure 17. True blue roux (properly béchamel, but that does't rhyme). 30 g butter and 30 g flour for the roux, mix in 50 ml cream and 200 ml raw milk together with the crushed berries from figures 14-15 above, and mixed until it was a glossy true blue béchamel sauce. The black specks are the crushed seeds. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella caerulea [true blue roux] 20221208_124533 sml.jpg


Figure 18. The final product - a majestic True Blue Dianella Soufflé. The flavour and colour was just stunning. © JPM, 2022.

Dianella caerulea [Dianella souffle] 20221208_133747 sml.jpg


Figure 19. My earlier attempt at this soufflé. Crushing the berries made a world of difference, both to the flavour and the colour. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella souffle 20221201_000722 sml.jpg


I have read on another bushfoods site (tuckerbush.com.au) that the roots of Dianella can be harvested, pounded and roasted like parsnips, but I have not yet dug up a worthwhile root so I cannot vouch for their edibility. Tim Low does not mention this usage, either.

Figure 20. The accidentally excavated root of a D. congesta. It was thin, woody and hardly worth the effort to pound and roast. I replanted it and am currently observing the plant's regrowth, if any. Sydney Olympic Park. © JPM, 2022.
Dianella congesta [root] 20221217_150854 sml.jpg


The long, fibrous leaves of Dianella, hence the other name, flax lily, are excellent for tearing into strips for weaving and have been used for this purpose by indigenous Australians to make dillies, baskets and mats for millennia.

Caution!

Some Dianella species as mentioned above may have extremely bitter, insipid, irritating and unpalatable berries. I have personally sampled this in a species in the New England (Armidale) region which were bitter and insipid, on the verge of revolting. If something doesn't taste quite right when sampling this plant, stop eating it and try them somewhere else! As always, if you are not sure that your allergies will allow you to safely consume Dianella, follow the procedure of wild food sampling outlined in the introduction to this series and always trust your sense of taste.

Recipe: True Blue Soufflé

Serves 2 (double amounts for 4)
Time: 30-45 minutes

Ingredients
30g unsalted butter (50g for 4 serves)​
30g plain flour (50g for 4 serves)​
50 ml thickened cream, room temperature​
200 ml raw milk, room temperature​
2 tsp macadamia honey​
Approx. 150g fresh Dianella berries, crushed into a paste​
3 egg whites (5 egg whites for 4 serves)​
1 tbs castor sugar​
Extra 20g butter and 1 to 2 tbs castor sugar to coat ramekins or mugs​
Method

1. Melt 30g unsalted butter in a small saucepan on a low heat, taking care not to burn or caramelise. Add 30g flour and stir until it becomes a smooth yellow roux.

2. Slowly add milk and cream to the roux, stirring constantly to remove lumps (turn heat off if it begins to burn, boil or scorch at any point). Continue to add milk & cream, mixing vigorously until the entire roux has become a smooth, moderately thick béchamel-style sauce.

3. Add 2 tsp honey and the Dianella berry paste to the béchamel. If the sauce is still a little runny, return to a low heat for 5-10 mins. Mix well and set aside to cool completely.

4. Melt approx 20 g butter in a microwave. Using a pastry brush, completely coat the inside wall of 2 ramekins or 2 coffee mugs suitable for oven baking. Refrigerate for 5 minutes or until butter has hardened. Apply a second coat of butter and refrigerate.

5. Once the second coat of butter has hardened, place 1-2 tbs castor (very fine) sugar into one ramekin. Tilting it on an angle downwards, spin the ramekin or mug slowly so the sugar falls out (I pour the excess sugar into the 2nd ramekin, then into the sink or bin), thus coating the inner wall completely in sugar. Refrigerate until ready to fill.

6. Whip 3 egg whites with 1 tbs castor sugar, added gradually while whipping, to make a stiff-peaked meringue.

7. Gently fold the completely cooled True Blue béchamel into the meringue until all is thoroughly mixed and the colour has penetrated. Spoon or pour the soufflé mixture carefully into butter-sugar coated ramekins, filling to within 1/2 cm (1/8 in.) from the top. Try to avoid dripping any mixture on the side wall or lip, as this can create a weak spot where the soufflé can burst as it puffs and rises.

8. Place ramekins or mugs onto a baking tray and bake at 180°C for 16-18 minutes. The soufflés can puff up to 5 cm (2 in.) above the rim when done, so keep an eye on them and make sure they have room in your oven to rise. If they start to collapse, you needed a thicker béchamel (use less milk/cream next time). They can be removed early and eaten gooey if collapse is imminent.

9. To remove, take the baking tray out and use a quadrouple-folded tea towel to carefully grasp each ramekin and move it to a serving plate. Mugs are easier to use at this point because they have handles!

10. Serve immediately! Soufflés will begin to deflate the moment they leave the oven.

Soufflés can be prepared in advance and reheated in a microwave for approximately 45 sec to 1 minute to bring back the puff. Alternatively, they can be carefully tipped out of their ramekins and served with icecream and fresh Dianella berries on a plate. Bon appétit!

Lomandra (Part 5)

Lomandra [Header].jpeg

One of Australia's deceptively delicious grasses, these often unassuming, tall, dense clumps are a potential staple grain and a starchy snack food for the intrepid adventurer-survivalist.

Names

The most common name for these dense plants is their scientific one: Lomandra. Older writings originally named this genus as Xerotes but is no longer in use today. It is a species of rush, and is also commonly called (spiny-headed) mat rush, basket rush and, in some places, sag (due to the drooping leaves). It shares some features in common with other edible rushes such as club, spike and bullrushes, namely, the edible leaf bases, flowers/pollen and seeds. Varieties generally change in their overall profile, foliage length and width, and a lesser extent their flower spikes. Lomandra longifolia (pictured above and not to be confused with the earlier blueberry lily, Dianella longifolia!) is extremely common and popular garden ornamental, standing in dense clumps up to 1.5 to 2m tall with tough, drooping, strap-like leaves. L. confertifolia (figure 1 below) has thinner leaves and an overall smaller, compact profile in comparison, which makes it ideal as a pathing ornamental. L. hystrix (figure 2 below) has a lighter green foliage and delicate flower heads. L. multiflora (figure 3 below) generally has few leaves but glorious, bunched flower spikes, as does L. spicata (not pictured but see seed head in figure 8 below).

Figure 1. L. confertifolia. Notice the thinner leaves. This species is the smallest lomandra, often being less than 0.75 metres in height. It is a common landscaping ornamental plant. Wikicommons.
Lomandra confertifolia.jpeg


Figure 2. L. hystrix, which has thinner flower spikes and a lighter green. Average height 0.75 to 1.5 metres. Wikicommons.
Lomandra Hystrix.jpeg


Figure 3. L. multifolia with its impressive flower spikes. Average height 0.75 to 1.25 metres. Wikicommons.
Lomandra multiflora.jpeg


Habitat and Range

Native to the mountains and forests of Australia's coast, lomandra can be found from the verge of the sea to tropical rainforest climes of Cape York, to the temperate eucalyptus forests the length of the Great Dividing Range, as far south as Tasmania and as far west as Perth. It will grow happily on escarpments and granite outcrops, behind dunes, along creeks and underneath trees of all kinds. Because lomandra has been cultivated as an ornamental rush for some time, it is extremely common in suburbia around Australia and internationally. It will be found easily and growing prolifically in public parks, private gardens and mountainous acreage. Lomandra is less common the further west one travels, as it does not like the open plains or dry, desert climes of the interior. Lomandra is extremely drought-hardy, requiring minimal watering or attention after being established in a garden.

Figure 4. Distribution of Lomandra (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Lomandra distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Long, strappy leaves, 50-200cm, often with ragged, dried-up tips
  • Leaves have no veins evident
  • Leaves emerge from a starchy, white, stemless, edible core in the leaf base
  • Flower spikes have prominent spines, 1-5 cm in length
  • Flower spikes dried out from past seasons may remain on the plant
  • Male flowers emerge in spring (August-November) and are tiny, 2-3mm, yellow, three-petaled and emit a sweet, strong fragrance
  • Female flowers emerge in spring (August-September) and are puffy, 2-3mm and very short lasting
  • Female flowers turn into green, peppercorn-like seeds (September-December)
  • Seed pods turn orange (rarely, purple or black) when ripe (December-February), and become stone hard
  • Seed pods have two or three segments containing a total of two or three white-grey grain kernels with a single black-grey dot (germ)
While it is technically possible to confuse lomandra with the earlier blueberry lily (Dianella spp.) if neither are in flower (or other poisonous lookalikes, see caution below), the towering clumps and ragged tips of the long, tough leaves of lomandra ought to be enough to ensure this does not happen. Lomandra will usually have a higher profile than lookalikes if they are both growing in the same area. If one plucks blueberry lily (Dianella spp.) out of the ground, one will be met with a meagre splay of roots connected to a thin stem; attempting the same with lomandra, however, will meet the intrepid survivalist with a wad of tough leaves that all connect to a central, white base which will regularly snap away from the dense root ball (see video below).

Lomandra flower spikes and seeds are impossible to confuse with lookalikes, however. Flowers appear in late August through November and they are dioecious, having distinct male and female parts. The male flowers are tiny, white-yellow and cluster in the hundreds around a noticeably spiky stem, emitting a saturating, sweet fragrance that will fill the air for hundreds of metres around (figure 5 below). Male plants will never bear seeds. Female flowers are slightly more sparse, being tiny, fluffy pom-poms on the spikes when compared to their male counterparts (figure 6 below). After wind pollination they will turn into round, green seeds that resemble green peppercorn, turning yellow-orange-red and toughening rock-hard when fully ripe (figure 7 below). Each seed will contain two or three small, edible, white-grey kernels (see figure 10 below). Male and female plants will produce 6-20 flower spikes each per season, depending on the age and situation of the plant. It is quite common to see the dry, spent flower spikes remaining on the plant well after flowering or seeding (see header image at the top of this article), which, besides their larger size and strappy foliage, is probably the easiest way to distinguish lomandra from other lookalikes in the field.

Figure 5. Male flowers of L. longifolia. Male flowers emit a strong, sweet fragrance and emerge on plants from late August to November. Melrose Park, Ermington, NSW. © JPM, 2021.
Lomandra [male flowers].jpg


Figure 6. Female flowers on L. hystrix. Female flowers are small puffs with no fragrance and last only a couple of weeks in late August to early September. Chiswick, © JPM, 2022.
Lomandra [female flowers] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Unripe, green seeds of L. longifolia. Note the spikes! They are as sharp as they look! Melrose Park, Ermington, NSW. © JPM, 2021.
Lomandra [green seeds].jpg


Figure 8. Orange, ripe seeds of L. spicata. Wikicommons.
Lomandra spicata [orange seeds].jpeg


Figure 9. An example of a rarer black-seeded mat rush (probably L. longifolia or L. filiformis). Hornsby Blue Gum Track, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Lomandra longifolia [black seeds] 20221120_152159 sml.jpg


Figure 10. Husked, threshed, sifted and roasted lomandra kernels. © JPM, 2021.

Lomandra [kernels, sifted] rsz.jpg


Uses

Lomandra has three primary uses. The first and least laborious is as a quick bushfood snack. Reach down into the centre of the plant and grab a wad of leaves near the base of the plant. Brace yourself carefully (I do not advise picking these near cliff edges!) and heave-ho, and you shall be met with a clump of leaves in your hand that culminate in a white, fleshy base (see video below). Give the base a wash and chew the white portion, which is basically the lowest 1 to 4 cm of the base of the leaf clump. These taste like sweet peas and have a crunchy texture. You can slice it thinly and add it to stir fries and salads, but they will have a tendency to be quite fibrous and stringy. In the field you can spit out fibrous parts and use the rest of the green leaves as detailed below for weaving, or discard. Flowers are also edible and have a similar sweet pea taste to them, although due to their small size it is hardly worth the bother.

Video: Harvesting mat rush leaf bases courteousy of Gordon Dedman and Bushcraft Survival Australia



Secondly, the white-grey kernels inside the seeds are edible. Oddly, Tim Low does not mention this usage for the plant but I have tried the kernels and they are very tasty. Each seed contains two or three germ kernel segements of carbohydrate- and nutrient-rich goodness; the outer husk is tough and must be discarded. If you want to try these in the field, they can be picked while they are still green (unripe) and somewhat pliable (early-mid December). Pluck a green seed from the seed head; remember to take care with the sharp spikes on the stem! Place the seed in your palm and prise/crush it open with a fingernail. You can then delicately extract the white-grey kernels and chew on it. Alternatively, the whole green seed heads can be harvested from the plant. Cut the stem near the base of the plant where it lacks spikes, and leave whole spikes to air or sun dry until the pods crack open and release the kernels (preferably into a bucket). These can then be ground into flour. Alternatively you can crush the pods in a mortar and pestle without damaging the kernels at all, although this process is very labour intensive.

Video: Harvesting green mat rush seeds and kernels courteousy of Australian Survival School



The seeds turn ripe and yellow in late December to early January, becoming stone hard at that point. Ripe seed can be harvested as above: cut the whole seed spike from the plant and leave, preferably in a bucket, to air or sun dry until the pods open and the kernels can be shaken out. These kernels can then be milled into flour, preferrably with a hammer mill if you have one, and cooked by adding them to any baked good, such as breads, biscuits or muesli. Raw kernels are exceedingly hard and must be milled by machine or hard stone mortar & pestle. I have not yet attempted to make bread from lomandra kernels, although it should be absolutely delicious because they are themselves fantastic eating. When baked as flour in bread they will have a texture similar to corn meal with a nuttier flavour - see here [LINK]. Lomandra flour is gluten free so it is not suitable for loaves except when mxed with glutinous flours such as wheat or rye; pan fried lomandra bread, e.g. tortillas, apparently has more success than oven-baked.

Traditionally, indigenous women harvested, crushed and ground the seeds with a millstone in a long and laborious process. The resulting flour was baked into a damper or mixed with flours from other native seeds and grains, such as kangaroo grass and acacia seed.

Like the flax lily, the long, tough leaves of lomandra are excellent for weaving, especially large items like mats, covers, baskets, bags and even rope.

Overall, lomandra is an extremely common, easily accessible and useful wild food plant which ought to adorn Australian dinner plates year-round. I think it deserves a return to its former glory as a staple indigenous Australian food. Given its drought tolerance, I'm surprised no-one has attempted to commercialise this no water-, no fertiliser-, no care-required staple grain.

Caution! Look-alikes!

It has come to my attention that it is possible, however unlikely, for inexperienced wild food foragers to potentially confuse Lomandra for an unrelated, introduced and potentially toxic ornamental strappy lillies like Dietes and Liriope. Fortunately, despite the similarity of their strappy leaves, both Dietes and Liriope have distinctive flowers and fruits that make mis-identification easy to rectify.

Dietes flowers are six-petaled, white-yellow-blue or yellow-orange with prominent dots, which usually occur on a branching stem emerging from the plant. These flowers will turn into brown pods that split open into three segments when ripe. However, Dietes have very similar foliage, albeit usually only reaching 1 metre in height, whereas many lomandras will reach 1.5 to 2 metres. Lomandra foliage will always have ragged tips and no conspicuous leaf veins; Dietes has spear-points and a prominent central leaf vein, especially if viewed from the underside.

Figure 11. Dietes iridioides foliage growing in a nature strip, Burwood, NSW.
Dietes [Foliage] sml.jpg


Figure 12. Dietes iridioides. Six-petalled, pale yellow flower with three prominent dark orange spots. Some flowers may be white with blue/purple pistils and may have yellow spots.
Dietes [Flower] sml.jpg


Figure 13. Dietes flowers turn into wrinkly green pods about the size of your thumb, turning brown and splitting open in thirds to disperse their black seeds.
Dietes iridioides [Seed Pod].jpg


Liriope is generally smaller, between 0.4 and 0.8 metres, usually with thinner foliage that could be more easily confused with L. confertifolia, although some ornamental cultivars of Liriope have white stripes extending the length of the leaf. Liriope leaves have a prominent central vein and are generally darker in colour; obvious veins are lacking in Lomandra as mentioned above. Purple flowers emerge in late summer or early autumn, February to April, on dense spikes which develop into unripe green then ripe black berries that resemble currants. Liriope flower stems lack the prominent thorns that Lomandra always has. The berries are poisonous and should not be eaten.

Figure 14. Liriope muscari, foreground. As long as there are purple flower spikes you can be assured it is not Lomandra. Wikicommons.
Liriope muscari [Foliage & flowers - wikicommons].jpg


Figure 15. Liriope spicata berries in varying stages of ripeness. Notice the lack of spikes, unlike Lomandra in figures 5-9 above. Wikicommons.
Liriope spicata [fruit wikicommons].jpg

Native Raspberries (Part 6)

Rubus rsz.jpg

© JPM, 2022.

Red packets of acidic goodness, it may surprise many Australian residents that our country is home to seven, yes, seven, native species of raspberries!

Names

A raspberry is a raspberry, right? Well, technically all raspberries come under the botanical family moniker of Rubus and they are found as natives worldwide. The seven Australian varieties are as follows: R. fraxinifolius ("Atherton raspberry"), R. rosifolius ("rose-leaf raspberry"), R. moorei & R. novae-cambriae ("bush lawyers"), R. moluccanus ("Molucca bramble"), R. parvifolius ("pink-flowered raspberry") and R. gunnianus ("alpine raspberry"). In some places they have the generic name "bramble" because of their thorny stems and generally annoying tendency, like their invasive European cousin the blackberry, to take over an area if left unchecked.

Habitat and Range

The seven native species are found, once again, along the length of the east coast in territory as far inland as the western edge of the Great Dividing Range. They prefer to occupy creek banks, escarpments, rocky terrain, roadsides, even venturing as far east as karkalla territory in the sand behind coastal dunes. To the great consternation of Australian Parks and Wildlife rangers everywhere, they also proliferate in the underbrush in national parks and state forests. Ranges of the specific varieties are as follows, remembering that these plants can be found 100 to 300km inland from the coastal markers given:

R. fraxinifolius - Found in Queensland only, from Cairns to Brisbane, but especially the Atherton tablelands.
R. rosifolius - From Bundaberg in Queensland as far south as Eden on the NSW-VIC border, as well as a few far-northern pockets around the Tropic of Capricorn.
R. moorei & R. novae-cambriae - From Brisbane to Wollongong.
R. moluccanus - From Cairns to Airlie Beach; and then absent until Rockhampton, then to Mallacoota on the NSW-VIC border.
R. parvifolius - By far the most abundant of the native raspberries, found in the eastern and southern ranges from Rockhampton to Adelaide, and including throughout Tasmania.
R. gunnianus - This tiny alpine raspberry is found in high-altitude areas of Tasmania only.

Figure 1. Distribution of Rubus, including native raspberries (all species), across the continent. Note that this map includes commercial European raspberries cultivated in the WA and SA fruit bowl regions; native raspberries are exclusive to the East Coast only. Atlas of Living Australia.
Rubus distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • A scrambling bramble with tough, woody and thorny stems
  • Leaves are splays of three to seven leafettes, often similar to rose or blackberry, depending on the species
  • Flowers are pink or white, five-petaled, with five lobed green or brown calyx at the stem, with dozens of tiny anthers ringing a central clump of dozens of pistils
  • Fruit ripen into red raspberries similar to commercial varieties, including the well-known 'torus' shape
  • Fruits are tart and juicy, with each segment containing a hard, white seed.
Besides the obvious red fruit, anyone familiar with blackberry or roses will have little difficulty identifying native raspberries. Leaves tend to be organised in splays of 3 to 5 leafettes, very similar to roses. Leaves can be quite small, 3-6 cm long as with the pink-flowered and most abundant R. parvifolius, or larger, broad leaves of 5-20cm, for the Molucca bramble. Unlike blackberry, which usually has red, thorny branches, native raspberries will be green or whitish with occasional pink blushes on the stems, with thorns varying from minimal to obnoxious.

Figure 2: R. parvifolius, which has the smallest leaves of all the native raspberries. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Rubus [Foliage rsz].jpg


Flowers are usually a 5-leaved white calyx, upon which there will be 5 white petals with multiple anthers and pistils clustered in the centre; the aptly-named pink-flowered raspberry has pinkish-purple petals. After pollination (typically by native or introduced bees), the flowers give way to multiple red, sometimes red-black fruiting segments, each which will contain a single, often hard, seed. Native raspberries are typically small, having 12-25 individual segments, although some varieties, like R. rosifolius, can have larger berries. The Tasmanian alpine raspberry is as tiny as 1-5 segments per berry, making them a high-altitude novelty more than a substantial bush walking snack!

Figure 3: Unopened pink flower of R. parvifolius. Wikimedia Commons.
Rubus [pink flower].jpeg


Figure 4: Atherton raspberry, R. fraxinifolius - leaves, fruit, flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Rubus [QLD raspberry].jpeg


Figure 5: A sorry-looking R. parvifolius berry. Note the thorns on the stem. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Rubus [Fruit rsz].jpg


Figure 6: the teeny-tiny berries and leaves of the Tasmanian alpine raspberry, R. gunnianus. Wikimedia Commons.
Rubus [Tasmanian alpine raspberry].jpeg

Native raspberries tend to fruit in small clusters of 1-5 berries, spaced out along a branch. The Queensland Atherton variety R. fraxinifolius will fruit in impressive clusters similar to the way blackberries do. Identical to their commercial cultivars, ripe berries will pull away from the central core cleanly, leaving the red toroid shape we all know and love.

Uses

Native raspberries may be used in identical fashion to their northern-hemisphere counterparts. They can most certainly be enjoyed fresh off the bramble or added to yoghurt, cereal or salads, but due to their tendency to be insipid, some varieties, especially R. rosifolius and R. moluccanus, are best cooked into jam, pies or coolis as this will greatly improve their flavour. A traditional liquor made of raspberries is also possible (this is very popular in Korea, for example - soak a generous serving of wild raspberries in 1 litre of white alcohol, e.g. soju, sake, vodka or pure moonshine for 1+ years, then enjoy). If you sample a native raspberry and find it to be horribly insipid, remember that its flavour will improve markedly when cooked! So take a bucket home instead!

Herbicide Caution!

Due to general ignorance of the fact that Australia is home to seven native "brambles", overzealous local councils and national park conservation programmes often victimise our native raspberries alongside their invasive, non-native European relative, the blackberry. Whilst the native brambles certainly can become a bother uncontrolled, it does mean that the intrepid forager must take care not to harvest from areas where chemical herbicides are in use. Fortunately, councils and national park management programs will often signpost this danger, warning foragers to refrain from eating berries in the area. As much as I would wish that councils utilised tethered goats for bramble control (goats will demolish raspberry and blackberry bushes in no time, and tethering them to the area will stop them escaping or eating unwanted foliage), somehow I doubt this idea is practical or economically viable in the long-term for the huge swathes of mountainous forest that our Aussie raspberries call home... as much as I'd prefer to see our native raspberries thrive for me to come along and help myself!

Rubus [chemical warning rsz].jpg

Native Plantain/Psyllium (Part 7)

Plantago [Native 2] rsz.jpg

© JPM, 2022.

Fighting for its place alongside introduced species, Australia's native plaintain is a salad-muncher's delight!

Names

Hailing from the globally-attested genus Plantago (P.), plantain greens ought not to be confused with the banana-like tropical fruit of the same name. Their seeds, especially the mucilage-bearing husks, are known as psyllium after the European species P. psyllium. Plantain is sometimes referred to as fleawort in England. When prepared whole in water, the resulting porridge is also known as sago (although that is also not to be confused with another plant of that same name). Australia's two most prominent native species are P. debilis and P. cunninghamii, with a multitude of European varieties not worth listing here also being abundantly plentiful for the last 200 years. It is quite possible that European species have interbred with native ones, although native varieties, or their hybrids, have some stand-out features as described below. Fortunately, all of the advice in this article applies equally to plantain species found elsewhere in the world as well.

Habitat and Range

Native plantain can be found in a great variety of habitats across the breadth of the entire Australian continent, generally south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Plantain is extremely common in grasslands, fields, forests, mountains and valleys, all the way to inland arid regions where they can be found near river beds, billabongs and anywhere after there has been decent rain to sprout their easily dispersed seeds. Once you can successfully identify this plant, you will easily find it anywhere that isn't exceedingly tropical, although I wouldn't be at all surprised if it has hitchhiked its way there as well, growing in isolated pockets.

Figure 1. Distribution of Plantago (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Plantago distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Leaves grow in a basal rosette from a central tap root, often 5-20 cm in length
  • Leaves have 5-7 prominent veins extending the length of the leaf, from stem to tip
  • Leaves may be serrated or cobbled in texture
  • Leaves may exhibit fuzz, especially on the underside
  • Raw leaves taste bitter with a mushroomy aftertaste
  • Flowers emerge on long, thin stems from the taproot
  • Flowers are tiny, white and short-lasting
  • Flowers set quickly into brown seeds
  • Seeds will swell and become sticky when wet
Native plantain is very difficult to confuse with other plants once the forager is familiar with its distinctive features. Leaves are generally between 8-25 cm long with five or seven long veins extending the length of the leaf. Leaves can be smooth, others with a slight fuzz, especially underneath, and others with crinkles. Some native varieties, like P. cunninghamii, can have slight serrations on the leaf edges, others are straight. They always grow in a basal rosette, similar to (and often alongside) dandelion, with all the leaves emanating from the central tap root.

Figure 2: Native plaintain (P. debilis). Note the crinkly leaves with long, thin flower stalks with brown-orange seeds (the brown seed heads in the background are a club rush). New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Plantago [Native] rsz.jpg


Figure 3: Native plantain (probably P. debilis). This variety was growing in the same field as the above sample and had smoother leaves, probably because it was a young specimen. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Plantago [Native 3] rsz.jpg


Figure 4: Close-up of the underside of a leaf of P. cunninghamii. Note the fuzz, prominent veins, and serrated leaf edge. Wikimedia Commons.
Plantago [Serrated Leaf with veins].jpg


Figure 5: Broad-leaved European variety, P. major, which is widely distributed across that continent and North America. Wikimedia Commons.
Plantago major [European variety].jpg


Flowers occur on long stalks 15-40 cm tall (see figure 1 above and figure 7 below) and most plants will have dozens of these standing upright and swaying in the breeze. Native plaintain, and its hybrids, can be distinguished from introduced varieties on the primary basis that the flower stalks are mostly long, slender and green, dulling to a greenish orange-brown after pollination. Flower stems of introduced varieties tend to be plump or squat and have more noticeable white flowers which turn brown as they are pollinated, often with both being present on the stalk at the same time, with brown at the bottom and white flowers at the tip. There is no risk of confusing species, as all varieties are equally edible.

Figure 6: A non-native, introduced variety of plantain (P. lanceolata) growing amidst dandelion. Notice the stocky flower heads with whiter flowers. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Plantago [European plantain-sago-psyllium plant] rsz.jpg


Figure 7: Close-up of a non-native variety's flower. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Plantago [European plantain-sago-psyllium] rsz.jpg


Figure 8: Flower stalks of a native plantain, P. cunninghamii, growing amidst a field of clover. The stalks are similar to P. major (figure 4), but the leaves are much smaller. Wikimedia Commons.
Plantago [Native Flowers].jpg


Uses

Culinary uses of the plant extend to the leaves, seeds and husks, the latter being primarily medicinal. Young leaves are best, as they will toughen as the plant ages, however I have found even adult leaves to be tender and sometimes worth the effort to pick - try the plant first before you commit. Leaves can be fried, boiled, pickled or eaten raw in salads. Native plantain leaves I have tried in the New England region have had a slight bitterness followed by a most interesting mushroomy flavour which was far more pronounced than the introduced species. Some older leaves can develop astringency and are best cooked before consumption.

Leaves may also be crushed and applied as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory poultice to insect bites, rashes and minor wounds, ulcers and boils. Plantago has been used for such topical treatments by many indigenous tribes both here in Australia, North America and Africa for millennia.

Seeds may be soaked in water in the husk; the water will activate the sticky mucilage in the husk and the seeds will swell up and get sticky, which is why this aspect of the plant is sometimes called sago. If enough seed is collected in this way, it can be gently cooked with water into a porridge which was once a staple food of many indigenous Australian peoples.

Psyllium is the dried husk separated from the seeds. This can be milled or left whole, soaked in water and drunk as a cure for constipation, being almost identical to the product "Metamucil" which is mostly milled plantain husks. Yes, this means the husks are high in soluble and non-soluble fibre, an excellent laxative, perfect for promoting ease of bowel, so keep this in mind if you want to cook up the porridge. Apparently the recommended dose as a laxative is approximately 3.5 grams of milled husk, twice per day, with constant upkeep of water intake (1-2 litres).

I have not at this stage attempted to harvest the roots of native plantains to assess their nutritional qualities, and they are omitted from Tim Low's treatment of the plant.

Medicinally, plantain is a go-to field anti-inflammatory and mild topical antibiotic. Leaves can be crushed or chewed and applied as a poultice directly to any kind of minor cut, abrasion, sore or insect bite. Secure the poultice in place with a bandage or gauze. Reapply every 3 hours or as needed. Plantain poultices will draw toxins out of bites, including snake, spider and bee, wasp or hornet stings, although some venoms have faster or slower courses of action and may require urgent specialist treatment. A tea made from plantain leaves (1 tsp dried or 1 tbs fresh), twice per day, is reputed to alleviate leaky gut and digestive issues.

Plantain, be they native or otherwise, is such a common, abundant plant it is a shame that few people even know its leaves a deceptively delicious, and seeds/husks will keep you as regular as the sunrise.

Herbicide Caution!

Keep aware that plaintain, native or not, is often treated as a weed by local councils. If picking this plant in urban areas, especially parks and fields, it is wise to call the local council and get information regarding whether they spray with toxic herbicides like glyphosate, and how often they do so. Otherwise there are few risks with this plant.

Acacias/Wattles (Part 8)

Acacia [Flowers - wikicommons].jpg

Ah, the inspiration for the green and gold! But do you know which parts are edible?

Names

Australia's national flower is well known and gives many of our national sporting teams their poignant colours. Known colloquially as the wattle, sometimes acacia, all of these plants come from the genus of the same name, Acacia, a plant family found widely across Africa, Asia, Australia and southern America. Oz is home to more than 600 native species, of which at least 40 prolific varieties are known to have edible properties. The most common of these edibles, as cited by Tim Low, are the east coast wattles (A. longifolia and A. sophorae), the arid interior's common mulga (A. aneura), the dogwood (A. coriacea), northern and central Australia's common wattle (A. cowleana), central and southern Australia's unnamed arid wattle (A. dichtyophleba), the strap wattle (A. holosericea), the witchetty bush (A. kempeana) and the bramble wattle (A. victoriae). To Tim's list I will add two very unique WA species: the red-eye wattle (A. cyclops) and the raspberry jam wattle (A. acuminata). A list of known edible species is included here [LINK]; however, there may remain many unknown edible species and several of the species listed as inedible in that list are marked edible elsewhere, so there is some confusion as to which is which. Notable toxic species to be avoided will also get a special mention in the final caution below.

Habitat and Range

Acacia is Australia's second-most abundant tree, behind Eucalyptus, occupying an estimated 980,000 square kilometres (378,000 sq. mi.) of land area! A native acacia exists for every possible climate, topography and range represented in Australia, primarily because of their ability to fix nitrogen from the air for use in Australia's often nitrogen-deficient soils. Wattles will live happily behind beach-fronts, in grasslands and fields of the inland plains (especially the West-Australian wheat belt), atop windy escarpments and coastal cliffs, and are probably the most prolific species of plant in the red centre. Wherever you go in Australia, you can be almost guaranteed to find an edible species of Acacia growing there, especially in the mulga-abundant arid regions of the interior.

Figure 1. Distribution of Acacia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia. Finding an edible species is a little more difficult!
Acacia distribution.png


Identification

While it is certainly not difficult to identify native acacias generally, especially during flowering season in July-October, not every species is equally palatable, and some species are toxic. The poisonous species will be explored below, but there is no universal rule to distinguish which is which other than specific knowledge of the common acacia species growing in your specific region. If in doubt, leave it out!

Figure 2. The common mulga (A. aneura), which grows across the entire inland regions of Australia. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia aneura [tree].jpg


Native acacias are generally a shrubby tree (figure 2 above), with established specimens ranging from 1.5 to 10m in height, depending on the species and habitat. Their two tell-tale features are their fluffy yellow-white puffs of aromatically scented flowers which appear in winter and spring (June-October), depending on the species, and the fact that most Australian acacias usually have no true leaves but "phyllodes", which are flattened, leaf-like extensions of the branch. Some acacias, such as the inedible silver wattle, do display their true leaves, pictured below (figure 9). Bark can be rough or smooth, depending on the species and age of the tree, but is generally tough and, if cut, will ooze a sticky sap which crystalises red or yellow depending on the species.

Figure 3. Common mulga foliage and flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia aneura [flowers and foliage wikicommons].jpg


Figure 4. Coast wattle (A. longifolia) foliage and flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia longifolia [leaves & flowers].jpeg


Figure 5. Witchetty bush (A. kempeana) foliage and flowers. This plant is also home to the famed witchetty grub. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia kempeana [foliage and flowers wikicommons].jpg


Figure 6. Strap wattle (A. holosericea) flowers, foliage and green, unripe pods. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia holosericiea [flowers foliage and green pods wikicommons].jpg


Figure 7. Bramble wattle (A. victoriae). Branch with foliage, thorns and a ripe pod. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia victoriae [Ripe pod + thorns wikicommons].jpg


Figure 8. Dogwood (A. coriacea), foliage and flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia coriacea [foliage and flowers wikicommons].jpg


Figure 9. The inedible silver wattle (A. dealbata), displaying true leaves rather than phyllodes. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia dealbata [Silver Wattle true leaves wikicommons].jpg


Flowers give way to clusters of curled, green, bean-like pods which turn brown, dry out and crack open when fully ripe, revealing 2-20 hard black seeds which will often scatter all over the ground underneath the tree. Acacia trees laden with ripe seed pods can appear "dead" from a distance due to the dominating brown colour. However, closer inspection reveals a multitude of pods bearing seed. The seeds often have a white, orange or red funicle, a kind of stem which connects the seed to the pod. This latter feature is especially prominent in the aptly-named West Australian red-eyed wattle seeds. Unripe, green seeds typically have pale funicles attaching each seed to the pod interior (see figure 15 below).

Figure 10. Toxic and inedible hakea wattle (A. hakeiodes), laden with ripe pods. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia rsz.jpg


Figure 11. Close up of inedible hakea wattle pods. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia [Wattleseed Pods] rsz.jpg


Figure 12. Ripe pods of the edible strap wattle (A. holosericea), also exhibiting seeds. The Forts, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia holosericiea [ripe pods - The Forts, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 13. Closeup of seeds of the strap wattle (A. holosericea), displaying a prominent orange funicle. The Forts, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia holosericiea [seeds - The Forts, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 14. Unripe, green pods of the green coast wattle (A. sophorae). South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.

Acacia sophorae [pods 2 - South Head] sml.jpg


Figure 15. Closeup of an opened, green seed pod of the green coast wattle (A. sophorae). South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia sophorae [pods 3 - South Head] sml.jpg


Figure 16. Dogwood (A. coriacea), ripe seed pods with seeds. Note the orange funicle on each seed. Wikimedia Commons.

Acacia coriacea [Seed Pod wikicommons].jpg


Figure 17. Red-eye wattle (A. cyclops). These seeds have a very prominent funicle, which can be a dark red colour on some specimens. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia cyclops [ripe pods wikicommons].jpg


Figure 18. Green, unripe pods on the bramble wattle, A. victoriae. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia victoriae [Green pods wikicommons].jpg


Uses

Wattleseed is one of Australia's native food success stories and is an international export for which demand far exceeds supply. Having been eaten by First Nation tribes for thousands of years, many decades of research has gone into understanding its use as potential food staples in other dry climates, such as arid Africa, although caution must be shown before introducing native Australian plants to other continents lest they take on invasive weed status themselves. Seeds from edible varieties are easy to harvest: one simply grabs handfuls of the ripe, brown pods and puts them in a bag or basket (keeping an eye out for spiders and ticks!) and then you shake or beat the seeds out of the pods and sieve the seeds from any leftover chaff. Acacias will drop huge amounts of seed, so it is also possible to collect and sieve from the ground beneath the plants even if the seeds are 15-20 years old - a drought staple. Try to avoid damaging or losing the funicles during harvest - this part of the seed has most of the protein in it! Ripe seeds should be roasted well (approx 25 mins at 180°C or they will burn) prior to consumption. They can be ground into flour or paste and used in baking, pastry, icecream and other desserts, and as a coffee-hazelnut-chocolate substitute for making beverages. The exquisite, nutty flavour is a favourite of connoisseurs worldwide and a unique culinary taste and lingers on the palate for some time (10-20 minutes) after consumption.

Figure 19. Harvested seeds from three different varieties of wattle, with their pods for future identification. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia seeds [3 varieties] 20221210_101652 sml.jpg


Figure 20. Pumpkin, dandelion and wattleseed (A. floribunda) soup. © JPM, 2022.
Pumpkin & Wattleseed Soup 20221215_082416 sml.jpg


Figure 21. Approximately 10 minutes harvesting and 1 hour of sifting resulted in 84 grams of hakea wattleseed (A hakeoides). Note the small white funicle on this variety. © JPM, 2022.

Acacia [Wattleseeds shelled & sifted] rsz.jpg


Figure 22. That same 84 grams of seed rough-ground into a flour in a mortar and pestle. Use a hand or machine mill! Please note, I do not recommend making flour at all from hakea wattle, it is toxic (more on that below)! © JPM, 2022.
Acacia flour [hakea wattle] rsz.jpg


Green seeds can also be eaten if the unripe, green pods from edible species, especially the coastal wattle (A. sophorae), are harvested and roasted whole, and the green seeds removed for consumption. The pods themselves are inedible and should be discarded. Roasted green seeds taste faintly like peas, followed by a milder, distinct nutty wattleseed flavour that lingers on the palate for some time afterwards.

Figure 23. Oven roasted green seeds and pods (180°C for 25 mins) of coast wattle (A. sophorae - the same pods as in figures 14 & 15 above). I prefer the ripe seeds, above, which have a much nuttier and more pronounced flavour, but these are likewise delicious. Harvested from South Head, Sydney Harbour. © JPM, 2022.
Acacia sophorae [cooked green pods] sml.jpg


Some varieties of wattles also have edible sap/gum, also known as gum arabic in the middle east and north Africa. You want to look for dried sap which has oozed from a wound in the tree, deliberate or otherwise, which is a light golden colour. Generally, the darker the sap, the more likely it is to taste bitter or be toxic. The one major exception to this is the West Australian raspberry jam variety (A. acuminata). Its dark red and viscous sap has a tart, raspberry-like flavour, hence the name. Generally, if a species has edible seed, it will have edible gum, but this is by no means a fixed rule. Two fail-safe species for gum harvest are the common mulga, A. aneura, and the Sydney region's green wattle (A. decurrens). The southern swamp wattle, A. retinodes, has edible gum but inedible seeds. I would always advise consulting with local lorekeepers for precise identification of edible acacia gums before attempting consumption. Gums can be used as natural thickeners, stabilisers and may be dissolved in hot water as a drink. Middle-eastern Acacia gums (gum arabic) have proven prebiotic qualities, being fermented by beneficial bacteria in the colon, but these properties may not have been properly researched for Australian acacias.

Figure 24. The golden wattle (A. pycnantha), common in Victoria, has edible gum. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia pycnantha [trunk and gum wikicommons].jpg


The common mulga (A. aneura) of the arid regions is also worth checking for "mulga apples." These are marble-sized bumps left on the flower buds by gall wasp larvae, and should be distinguished from other gall injuries on acacia stems, leaves and pods by the fact that the gall "apple" itself is always covered with warty bumps. They are chewy and should taste something like a dried apple. The wasp grub may or may not still be inside.

Figure 25. "Apples" on a golden wattle (A. pycnantha). Proper "mulga apples" will look very similar to these, but on the variety A. aneura growing in the red centre. Wikimedia Commons.
Acacia pycnantha [mulga apples wikicommons].jpg


Other species are reported as having edible inner bark and roots, but I cannot verify these at this time, and it is more likely that these parts of the plant were used for medicinal preparations. Some species, like A. pycnantha, have extremely high levels of tannins in the bark, which can be used for medicinal purposes.

Caution!!!

Due to their ability to fix nitrogen for plant use, acacias can have some quite nasty, even potentially fatal, toxins (e.g. sodium fluoroacetate). However, one would need to eat a fairly significant quantity of raw, uncooked seed (green or ripe) or gum to be at significant risk of major ill effects, even from toxic species. When sampling wattleseed or gum in your area, always roast the seed before attempting to eat it and deploy the taste test guide outlined in the introduction to this series to assess edibility. If seed or gum tastes exceedingly bitter, causes immediate stomach upset or diarrhea, stop eating it!

As noted in figures 21 and 22 above, I harvested in New England what turned out to be the toxic hakea wattle, A. hakeoides. Desiring to be adventurous and try it anyway, I ground the seeds in a mortar and pestle, mixed it with water into a cake and baked it at 180 degrees C for approximately 30 minutes. I tried about a thumbnail portion. It wasn't terribly appealing, although the smell of the roasted wattleseed was impressive. These seeds caused a slight burning sensation to the back of the throat when eaten, and churned in my stomach for some hours before resulting in a very mild case of diarrhea. So while I definitely concluded that this variety is not worth going back for, I am living proof that, though toxic, if consumed in very small amounts and always following your sense of taste as a guide, eating a poisonous species of acacia will not result in instantaneous death.

Listed below are some of the more common poisonous species. Please click the links for additional identifying photographs and distribution courteousy of Atlas of Living Australia.

Acacia ammobia
Acacia cupularis (in older works A. bivenosa subspecies wayi)
Acacia concurrens
Acacia crassicarpa
Acacia dealbata
Acacia falcata
Acacia hakeoides
Acacia hemignosta
Acacia hubbardiana
Acacia melanoxylon
Acacia papyrocarpa
Acacia podalyriaefolia
Acacia retinodes (but edible gum)
Acacia saligna
Acacia suaveolens
Acacia torulosa
Acacia ulicifolia
Vachellia (formerly Acacia) ditricha

Edible Nectars: Grevillea, Banksia and Eucalyptus (Part 9)

Grevillea banksii [Tree - Newington, NSW] sml.jpg

Grevillea banksii in full bloom. Newington, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Ever had that sudden craving for sugar but you ran out of candy? It just turns out that Australia is home to some of the sweetest natural confectioneries growing free in backyards and wilderness areas across the continent.

Names

As this entry concerns three different plant families, Grevillea (G.), Banksia (B.) and Eucalyptus (E.), specifics regarding identification, excepting eucalyptus, which I expect anyone living in Australia to identify without effort, will be supplied in the figures below. However, there are several specific species worth mentioning by name for the intrepid bush food collector or interested home gardener.

For the grevilleas, the northern G. pteridifolia or "Golden Grevillea" is now an extremely common ornamental in gardens around the country (and occasionally overseas) and a prolific producer of edible nectar. It may still be found in abundance in its native habitat across the Top End from Broome in Western Australia, across the Northern Territory and on to Cape York and Cairns. On the eastern and south-eastern coast the enormous G. robusta, otherwise known as the silky oak or silver oak (and not to be confused by name with the native she-oak, Casurina, which looks like a pine tree), puts on its show of nectar-laden golden flowers every year, as does the cream or red-flowered G. banksii. In the arid regions of the interior, one may find the delicious G. juncifolia and G. eriostachya, among many other grevillea species which all have edible flower nectar.

Of the banksias, B. integrifolia's thick, candle-like cream-yellow flowers is very abundant on the majority of the east coast. The swamp banskia, B. dentata, is the only variety to be found regularly in the north western parts from Broome across to the Kimberleys and Kakadu. South western Australia's wheat belt region is home to at least 58 of Australia's 173 identified species alone! All banksias flowers have edible nectars, but in my experience significantly lag behind grevilleas in their overall nectar output and really require soaking in water to extract their sweetness.

Eucalyptus is probably Australia's most iconic tree (I would rank it just ahead of the wattle) due to its prominent association with koalas, drop bears and the medicinal throat lozenge "eucalyptus drops" and antibacterial eucalyptus oil. While eucalyptus trees were often far more important to the native tribes for their supply of edible lerps (see figure 15 below), galls (see figure 19 in the previous article on acacias; similar galls can occur on eucalyptus flowers), "sugar bag" (native beehives) and nesting birds and marsupials, virtually all eucalyptus varieties produce copious amounts of edible nectar. Of note are the bloodwoods, E. intermedia, well known for their blood-red sap and nectar-bearing flowers, and the Tasmanian "cider gum", E. gunnii, noted for its allegedly maple-syrup flavoured sap. The large-flowered ironbarks and Corymbia ficifolia (formerly E. ficifolia) likewise have abundant harvests of nectar available for the intrepid adventurer-survivalist.

Habitat and Range

Excepting the very harshest desert or saltpan regions, grevillea, banksia and eucalyptus can be found across the continent, and some species have even become invasive pests in other places of the world after careless introduction. Banksias are abundant in Australia's loamy, infertile soils, especially in heath or dry woodland, although they are less common in the wet north, alpine and in the red centre regions. Grevilleas are a little more hardy, being also found at altitude and throughout desert climes. There is a eucalyptus for almost every acre of Australia, deserts, swamps and snowy alpine regions included.

Figure 1. Distribution of Eucalyptus (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Eucalyptus distribution.png


Figure 2. Distribution of Grevillea (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Grevillea distribution.png


Figure 3. Distribution of Banksia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.

Banksia distribution.png


Grevillea, banksia and eucalyptus flower all year round, especially after rain, but more prolifically in spring and late summer (especially for the eucalypts). They make excellent ornamentals and are best suited to Australia's generally terrible soil, although it is important not to fertilise them with high phosphorus fertilisers (e.g. chicken manure) as this can kill the plants outright (especially banksias).

Identification

Grevillea and banksia can both be identified for their tough and colourful flower spikes. Ranging from whites, creams to golden orange, reds and rarely purple and green, they flower all year round with prolific flowering in the spring or after rainfall. Differences between grevillea and banksia rest mostly in the shape and colour of the leaves (especially the undersides), the overall shape of the flower spikes, and the shape of the seed cones/pods.

Figure 4. Leaf variation in four species of banksia, from the left: B. serrata, B. oblongifolia, B. marginata, B. ericifolia. Many common species of banksia have white undersides on their leaves, and serrated edges. Wikimedia commons.
Banksia [foliage L to R B. serrata, oblongifolia, marginata, ericifolia wikicommons].jpg


Figure 5. Banksia marginata flower. Left, immature (no nectar). Right, mature (nectar-bearing). Banksia flowers are always conical or tubular, like fat candles. Note the white undersides on the leaves. Wikimedia commons.
Banksia marginata [immature and mature flowers wikicommons].jpg


Figure 6. Spent banksia cone. The open pods have already released their seeds and may remain on the tree for years afterwards, a key identifying feature. Again, note the white undersides of the leaves. Wikimedia commons.
Banksia integrifolia [seed pod discharged wikicommons].jpg


Figure 7. Unspent banksia cone. Notice that the pods are closed, indicating the seeds are still inside. Dharawal National Park. © JPM, 2022.
Banksia [cone] 20220604_113608 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Golden grevillea, G. pteridifolia, flowers and foliage. Unlike tubular banksias above, grevilleas spike their flower anthers usually on one side of the supporting stem and their leaves do not have white undersides, but may have white fuzz/fine hairs. Wikimedia Commons.
Grevillea pteridifolia [Foliage and Flowers wikicommons].jpg


Figure 9. Cream coloured G. banksii flower. The nectar pools in pockets near the stem, at the base of each anther. Pollen is visible on the anther tips. Narabeen Lagoon, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Grevillea banksii [flower, Narabeen Lagoon NSW sm].jpg


Figure 10. G. banksii with young seed pods (foreground; immature flower in the background). Pods will turn brown but remain unopened when seeds are ripe. Note the white fuzz on the underside of the leaf, contrasted to banksia which would be completely white. Wikimedia commons.
Grevillea banksii [pods forming wikicommons].jpg


Figure 11. G. robusta in full flower (also header image at top of this article). Note the opened, spent seed pods (brown) which do not look like banksia cones. Wikimedia commons.
Grevillea robusta [flowers & pods wikicommons].jpg


Figure 12. G. decurrens, otherwise known as the fuschia grevillea. It is known to have edible seeds. Wikimedia commons.
Grevillea decurrens [flower and foliage wikicommons].jpg


Figure 13. Edible seeds of G. decurrens, removed from their pods. © Gary Fox. Territorynativeplants.com.au
Grevillea decurrens [edible seeds - Gary Fox].jpg


Figure 14. Corymbia ficifolia, formerly Eucalyptus ficifolia, one of the largest flowering gumnuts one can find in Australia. If you look close enough, you can see the glistening nectar on the yellow "cup" of the flower, a favourite of possums, sugar-gliders, lorikeets, bees and bush foodies across the country. This nectar regenerates every day until the flowers set into gumnuts, or for approximately 24 hours if the flowers are cut off the tree but the stem is kept in a vase of water. All eucalyptus flowers have the same shape; only size and colour will change.
Corymbia ficifolia [flowers, formerly Eucalyptus f. wikicommons].jpg


Uses

Viable species will drip a sticky, sweet liquid from mature and fully opened flowers which tastes, depending on the variety, like mild honey to a quite strong sugar syrup. For grevilleas and banksias and large eucalyptus flowers, nectar can be extracted directly from the base of the flowers with the brush of a finger by pushing in deep along the flower's stem, or, if you're particularly keen to brave the countless bugs, ants and bees that simply love these flowers, the lips. All grevillea, banksia and eucalyptus flowers may be removed from plants and dipped into water, infusing it with their delightful sweetness, a favourite sweet treat of many native Australian tribes, especially in the arid interior and Top End. This method is especially pertinent for small eucalyptus flowers as their "cups" can often be too small to fit a human finger or tongue. Simply cut the cluster and soak in water to release their sweet nectar (optional - sieve the bugs out of it as well). Flowers will regenerate nectar daily until they set their pods. Nectar is best harvested in the early morning before the lorikeets get into it.

Video: Harvesting desert grevillea for dessert with Malcolm Douglas and the tribes of the arid interior, 1979. © Malcolm Douglas.



Seeds of both grevillea and banksia may be ground into flour as an emergency food. Due to difficulties extracting enough seed from banksia cones or grevillea pods, I have been unable to ascertain palatability or toxin levels of these products and they are probably best kept for absolute emergency food situations, with G. decurrens (figures 12-13 above) as a notable exception. It is said that exposing ripe but closed banksia cones and grevillea pods to fire or heat (e.g. an oven) will cause them to open and release their seeds for human use. Otherwise the cones and pods can be left to sun dry and this will cause them to open in due time. Note that the seeds of these plants are designed to spread by wind dispersion and they have wings to aid this, similar to maple seeds (figure 13 above).

The Tasmanian cider gum, E. gunni, has edible sap, akin to a light maple syrup. The sap can be acquired by slashing the inner bark with a knife or axe, or tapping the tree with a drill and pipe akin to maple syrup harvesting. The tribal people of Tasmania used to ferment this sap into an alcoholic beverage, hence the name "cider gum". Other eucalyptus saps may have edible properties but are mostly unresearched so caution is advised if you wish to try them; Tim Low (p.153) cites E. viminalis and E. mannifera as examples of other edible eucalyptus gums, especially if the liquid sap is left to dry into the delicious sweet the settlers called "manna". Bloodwood sap may be used as a topical antibiotic but should not be taken internally.

All Eucalyptus trees will be home to lerps, the conical, sugary excrement of the psyillid bug. Gently scrape the lerps from the leaf and eat; the bug will be a tiny red dot which may or may not remain stuck in the sugary cone - dissolving the sugary lerp in water will cause the bug to float on the surface where they can be skimmed off, if you find the idea of eating a bug the size of a full-stop to be repulsive. This food was highly prized by tribal peoples across the continent, and was sometimes collected by the bagful for special ceremonies and trading.

Figure 15. Edible, sugary lerps on eucalyptus leaves. Yes, the thought of eating bug poop-sugar is gross, but you already eat bee vomit (honey) without complaint so what's the problem?
Eucalyptus lerp [wikicommons].jpg


Eucalyptus leaves may be steam-distilled to extract their well-known essential oils. The species E. globulus is the main one used for commercial production. It is important not to take eucalyptus leaf oils internally except in minute amounts due to potentially severe complications from their toxicity. Eucalyptus oils exhibit strong antibacterial action when applied topically, and breathing in the mist from adding eucalyptus oil to steaming water is a well-known tonic for chesty coughs and other cold and flu-like illnesses.

Caution

Some grevilleas, especially the gigantic G. robusta, are known to have extremely irritating bark sap. Skin and eye contact should be avoided from touching grevillea sap oozing from bark or broken flower stems. Some eucalyptus saps/gums and all eucalyptus essential oils derived from the leaf are also quite toxic internally. Always seek advice from specialists in Australian homeopathy, naturopathy and traditional herbal medicine before using or consuming any eucalyptus product.

A final caution remains regarding the flammability of eucalyptus essential oils, including in the living trees themselves. This is the reason Australian bushfires are so bad; the trees literally harbour a potentially explosive, flammable oil!

Native Parsnip (Part 10)

Trachymene incisa [plant cropped & sml].jpg

Native parsnip. © JPM, 2022.

An under-utilised native tuber, this Aussie parsnip can be hard to find but once discovered you can be sure there are hundreds more nearby!

Names

Closely related to carrot, parsley and European parsnip, this native Australian perennial tuber has been assigned the botanical genus Trachymene (T.). Although Tim Low lists only one edible species (T. incisa), there are many prominent edible native parsnips widely distributed across the continent which featured prominently in the diet of many native tribes. Such species include the eastern, mountainous T. incisa, already mentioned; T. glaucifolia of the arid interior; T. ochracea of arid south-western Queensland; the purple-tubered T. cyanopetala of the west Australian wheat belt region; and T. pilosa, a dwarf variety which is common in the wheat belt regions of western and southern Australia. I have no doubt that lorekeepers across the country still retain many traditional names and uses for this once popular tuber.

Habitat and Range

Native parsnip can generally be found in sheltered woodland and heath country on the eastern coast of Australia, mostly in New South Wales, but range from Cape York in Queensland to Ulla Dulla near the NSW/Victorian border region, as well as inland along the Great Dividing Range, especially the New England region. Other species may be found in the arid regions, as well as western and southern Australia. They prefers well draining, sandy but moist underbrush. Arid species can simply be growing in the middle of the desert, but usually in the shelter of rock formations or escarpments. Look for it amidst granite or basalt rock outcroppings, or sandstone escarpments and cliffs, as well as under or beside fallen logs, and amidst alpine heath and woodland. Native parsnips are often patchily distributed and can be difficult to find, especially in woodland, but where they occur they usually grow in large, localised quantities. Due to the fact they are perennials, unharvested or young plants will remain for years to come. It is worth recording locations where they are found for future use.

Figure 1. Distribution of Trachymene (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Trachymene distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Parsley-like leaves, emerging from a central taproot
  • Flowers in spring through summer (September-January)
  • Flowers emerge on long stalks, 40-80cm long
  • Flowers are tiny clusters of five-petaled, five-anthered white or pinkish white
  • Taproot is a long, sometimes tough but edible tuber.
  • Taproot and crushed leaves should smell faintly like carrot or parsley
In many respects, foliage of native parsnips most resemble a thicker version of carrot or perhaps a thinner version of Italian parsley, although these can vary according to the local species. Foliage is typically green, sometimes with a red or purple tinge when leaves are young.

Figure 2. Native parsnip, T. incisa, foliage on a granite outcrop. The leaves are a bit thicker than carrot, but thinner than Italian parsley. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Trachymene incisa [foliage].jpg


Figure 3. T. incisa foliage growing on a granite outcrop. This one had a reddish tinge, indicating a young specimen. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Trachymene incisa [plant & rock cropped sml].jpg


Their tiny flower heads appear in the spring through summer. Being only 1-2 cm across, if growing singly in an area they can be easily missed. But since they often occur on long stems of 50-150 cm tall and grow in clumps together, a collection of flower heads together is a sign of a robust colony of parsnips.

Figure 4. Native parsnip, T. incisa, flowers. Note the tall, branching flower stem. Old flower stems draping across the ground (white dried stems, see figure 3. above as well) can be used to identify plants which are no longer in flower. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Trachymene incisa [plant & flower sml].jpg


Figure 5. Closeup of a native parsnip flower, T. incisa. This flower head was tiny, about the size of your thumbnail. New England National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Trachymene incisa [flower closeup].jpg


Figure 6. Desert parsnip, T. glaucifolia, grows happily in the red centre in SA, WA, NT, QLD and north-west NSW. Atlas of Living Australia.
Trachymene glaucifolia [Desert Parsnip - ATLAS] sml.jpeg


Figure 7. Yellow-flowered Queensland parsnip, T. ochracea, common in the south-western and central parts of that state. Atlas of Living Australia.
Trachymene ochracea [QLD desert parsnip - ATLAS] sml.jpeg


Figure 8. The West Australian purple parsnip, T. cyanopetala, which is also common on the Eyre peninsula and in western Victoria. Atlas of Living Australia.
Trachymene cyanopetala [WA purple parsnip - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 9. Southern dwarf parsnip, T. pilosa, also common in the West-Australian wheat belt region. Atlas of Living Australia.
Trachymene pilosa [Dwarf Parsnip - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 10. European wild parsnip flower, Pastinaca sativa, for comparison. Not to be confused with fennel or dill. European wild parsnip has radish- or celery-like leaves and can be found wild across the entire northern hemisphere, including North America. Wikimedia commons.
Pastinaca sativa [European parsnip flower wikicommons].jpg


Figure 11. Native Australian parsnip tuber, T. incisa. This would be an adult specimen, probably between 2-3 years old. © Mitchell Park, Cattai National Park, NSW. Survival.ark.net.au
Trachymene incisa [tuber Mitchell Park, Cattai NSW survival.ark.net.au].jpg


Uses

Native parsnips can be used in the same way as European versions. They are best served roasted in fat with a sprinkle of salt, or pan fried in butter or oil, but can also be enjoyed raw, sliced thin and crunchy on salads. Australian wild parsnips are typically smaller than European ones and grow slower. They are best harvested between 1 and 2 years old, with large specimens typically being 3 or more years old. The older they get the woodier their root cores become; it may be necessary to slice large parsnips in half and remove the woody central core, just as with large European parsnips.

It is always advisable to leave a few flowering specimens behind when harvesting so that they may continue to propagate from seed, ensuring there will always be a supply available at your secret location. Native parsnips may be considered for cultivation purposes in rocky or sandy garden situations, their preferred habitat in the wild, if only for their beautiful yearly display of delicate flowers.

It is also worth remembering that it is illegal to remove native plants from National Parks (all of the plants in my photos above were not harvested; I cannot comment on Mitchell Park's tuber photograph). It is better to look for wild parsnip for harvest on private property with the owner's permission, or in State forests or other permissible locations.

Geebung (Part 11)

Persoonia [tree sml].jpg

A young geebung making its way in the world. © JPM, 2022.

Bright green amongst the dull, geebungs are easy to find and tasty to eat, if you can find them ripe!

Names

Hailing from the genus Persoonia (P.), Australia is home to more than 100 species of this evergreen shrub. They are commonly referred to as geebung on the eastern coast, originally a Dharug word (the Wiradjuri use jibbong). Since all species are edible, naming of individual species is of less importance. However there is remarkable variation within the Persoonia family. One species worth noting is prominent in the topical and well-watered regions of the Northern Territory, P. falcata, which is also known locally there as the nanchee or milky plum. Apparently the denizens of Western and Southern Australia use an early and archaic English name of unknown derivation for the fruit, snottygobbles, a name I would like to see return to its rightful place in Australian food lore.

Habitat and Range

Geebungs are found across most of Australia's woodlands, heath and scrub regions, preferring poor quality sandy or rocky soils, especially sandstone mountain ranges. They are most common on the east coast from Cape York in the north to Tasmania in the south along the Great Dividing Range, and across Victoria and the Dandenongs towards Mt. Gambier in the lower south-eastern corner of South Australia. They are also prominent in Western Australia's south-western wheat belt region, as well as the tropical species across the Kimberleys to Kakadu. They are not found in the red centre or arid regions.

Figure 1. Distribution of Persoonia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Persoonia distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Small shrub or tree, usually 1.5 to 4 metres
  • Variable leaf profile from thick and long to thin, pine-needle like or exotic, helical or short and stubby.
  • Yellow or cream curled, swept-back, four-petaled flowers with four curled, swept-back anthers and a long, single, central pistil
  • Green unripe fruit which resemble olives, each having a protruding style at the tip
  • Yellow or purple ripe fruit which drop from the tree
  • Fruit has one (rarely, two) olive-like stones
  • Fruit may have 'cotton'-like fibres inside
Geebungs are typically stout, stubby shrubs between 1 and 3 metres tall (see header image at the top of the article). As with banksias, geebungs have a massive variety of foliage on display amongst their many species, with some of the more exotic samples below in the figures. Leaves range from long, broad, leathery, bright green, almost coast wattle-like leaves to thinner needles like some banksias, and some species even have helical twists! Bark can range from dark, ugly peeling patches (similar to iron bark) to smooth, grey specimens. Some common species exhibit red stems, especially on new growth, an important identifying feature (see below on the look-alike tie bush).

Figure 2. Young geebung, probably P. levis, approximately 80 cms tall. Note the thick, bright green leaves, red stems and rough trunk bark on this species. Dharawal National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia [tree juvenile sml].jpg


Figure 3. P. pinifolia, demonstrating its needle-like leaves and unripe green fruit. Dharawal National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia [Leaves & fruit sml].jpg


Figure 4. P. rigida with its stiff, curled foliage, common in Victoria. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia rigida [Vic foliage wikicommons].jpg


Figure 5. P. helix, from the WA wheat belt region, with its impressive helical leaves. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia helix [WA foliage wikicommons].jpg


Figure 6. P. microphylla with its stubby leaves and curling yellow flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia microphylla [flowers & foliage wikicommons].jpg


Flowers are much more regular amongst all species, being almost exclusively bright yellow or cream with four prominent petals that curl back towards the stem. Each petal will have an anther curled back with it, and a single central pistil. They usually flower in impressive clusters at the tip of each branch with each growing season, usually from late January through to June.

Figure 7. Flowers of P. levis. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia levis [flowers] 20221211_150824 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Closeup of an individual flower on P. levis. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia levis [flower] 20221211_151025 sml.jpg


Figure 9. P. elliptica, opened and unopened flowers of this Western-Australian species. Wikimedia Commons.

Persoonia elliptica [WA - flowers wikicommons].jpg


Figure 10. P. sulcata flower and needle-like foliage. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia sulcata [flower wikicommons].jpg


Figure 11. P. pinifolia flower spikes at the growing tips. Royal National Park, NSW. Wikimedia commons.
Persoonia pinifolia [flower spikes wikicommons].jpg


Flowers set into small, green olive-like fruits with a prominent style extending from the tip. They contain a single olive-like stone (rarely, two) which is usually discarded. Unripe fruits will be a bright green, similar to the foliage, and will either lighten towards a greenish-yellow, or develop yellow stripes, or turn purple, as they get close to ripening. Almost fully ripe fruits will drop from the tree and should be left to ripen for at least a couple more days before consumption.

Figure 12. P. levis, mostly unripe fruit and flower buds. One fruit, centre bottom, is starting to ripen and turn pale yellow. Note the style at the end of each fruit. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia levis [fruit wikicommons].jpg


Figure 13. P. pinifolia unripe fruit. Again, note the styles at the fruit tips. Dharawal National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia [fruit sml].jpg


Figure 14. P. pinifolia almost-ripe fruit. Mittagong, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia pinifolia [Fruit - Mittagong, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 15. P. pinifolia almost-ripe fruit with prominent styles. This species has turned purple. Wikimedia Commons.
Persoonia pinifolia [ripe fruit wikicommons].jpg


Figure 16. P. linearis fruit on their way to ripening. Wikimedia commons.
Persoonia linearis [fruit wikicommons].jpg


Uses

Due to competition from kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, scrub turkeys, native rats and mice and feral pigs, it can be difficult to find ripe fruits underneath bearing trees. However, some species bear so prolifically that this is not much of an issue. Ripe fruits have slightly soft, fibrous, almost rubbery flesh and a slightly sweet, sometimes astringent taste. Some varieties taste like vine-dried sultanas, others bland like cotton wool dipped in sugar water (legit!). Unripe fruits are astringent, hard and rather unpalatable, almost like eating unbrined olives (revolting). If bumper crops can be found, fallen fruits may be collected by the bucketful and left to ripen a few more days before consumption. I have found that some species, especially the pine-needle geebung (P. pinifolia) can be harvested directly from the tree if you feel for fruit that feel soft to the touch and have a white-yellow blush; unripe fruit are hard and almost entirely green. Fruit picked from the tree will ripen slightly if it is left to sit for a few days, a process which actually causes the sweet, fibrous inner flesh to separate from the astringent skin.

Figure 17. What to expect inside a geebung fruit. This specimen was almost ripe so it was getting gooey inside, but was still mildly astringent with tell-tale 'cotton' fibres. Mittagong, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia pinifolia [Open Fruit - Mittagong, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 18. A pine-needle geebung (P. pinifolia) harvested from the tree and left to sit on my benchtop for 3 days. The sweet, inner material separated freely from the astringent skin and could be chewed on. The stone is very hard, much like an olive. Picked from Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Persoonia pinifolia [open fruit - Blue Gum Track] 20221124_093357 sml.jpg


I am unaware of any attempt to make jams, jellies or other preserves from geebung, but these may be possible. The difficulty will be in removing the ripe flesh from the seed in a practical way. Tim Low mentions that some native tribes in the Kimberleys would sun-dry the nanchee (P. falcata) fruit, roast the dried fruit on ashes, and then hammer it, seed and all, into a powder for long-term storage and later use. Whether other species likewise have crushable and thus edible seeds remains to be researched carefully.

It may be possible to brine unripe geebung fruit similar to olives, but I have never heard of anyone attempting this. I recently attempted to sun dry geebung fruit and discovered that they do turn black, exactly like olives. They shrivelled too much for an attempt to pickle them, however.

Caution!

While all native snottygobbles are equally edible, it is possible for the novice bush foodie to confuse unripe or almost ripe geebung fruit with the poisonous native tie bush (Wikstroemia indica). The native tie bush differs from geebung in that its fruit lack the prominent long style at the tip and turn bright tomato red when fully ripe; tie bush leaves have pale white undersides (geebungs have no pale side to the leaf); and tie bush flowers are stumpy and green-cream-yellow, lacking the prominent curling anthers and long pistil (but they are four-petalled, just like geebungs are).

Figure 16. Tie bush (Wikstroemia indica) foliage and flowers. Leaves have prominent veins. Wikimedia Commons.
Wikstroemia indica [Tie Bush - flowers & foliage wikicommons].jpg


Figure 17. Unripe tie bush fruit, which is very similar in appearance to geebung. Note the lack of the prominent long style of the edible geebung (figures 10-14 above). Wikimedia Commons.
Wikstroemia indica [Tie Bush - unripe fruit flickr.com].jpg


Figure 17. Fully ripe tie bush fruit, unmistakably crimson in colour, and pale white undersides to the leaves. No geebung has red fruit, although some may be maroon or purple (see figure 13 above). Wikimedia Commons.
Wikstroemia indica [Tie Bush - red fruit - Dee Why, NSW wikicommons].jpg

Native Sour Currant (Part 12)

Leptomeria acida [fruit & branch] sml.jpg

Sour currant bush. © JPM, 2022.

One of the most weird and wacky specimens of Aussie Bush tucker, can you picture a tree with fruit but no leaves? That's the native sour currant bush!

Names

There are 17 species of this endemic Australian plant, all hailing from the genus Leptomeria (L.). The more prominent species include L. acida, L. aphylla and the Tasmania species L. drupacea. It is a popular bush food where it occurs and was called sour currant, native currant or acid drops by early colonists who sought the plant for its vitamin C. First Nations people gleefully helped themselves to this hardy shrub wherever it was found in fruit, sometimes bearing coolamon-loads of the delightfully tart berries from especially bountiful areas.

Habitat and Range

Sour currants are found only in Australia, sharing a similar wooded range as banksias (excluding the Top End) for good reason: banksias are one of the key species colonised by this hemiparasitic plant. They are typically found in well draining, sandy but poor quality soil amidst woodlands and heaths along Australia's eastern coast south of Gladstone to far eastern Victoria, with some species also present across central-western Victoria, South Australia (including Kangaroo Island), the Western Australian wheat belt region, and Tasmania. They are absent from arid or tropical regions of the continent.

Figure 1. Distribution of Leptomeria (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Leptomeria distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Small bushland shrub, 1-3 metres in height
  • Leafless!!
  • Branches can exhibit browning and green stripe patterns
  • Flowers in spring and summer
  • Flowers are tiny, white or red, with five petals and four or five anthers
  • Flowers set into tiny, 2-4 mm long red or green fruit in late summer or early Autumn (Feb-April)
  • Fruit may have faint white speckles on the skin, or translucent skin
  • Fruit has a red or black dot at the tip
  • Fruit has a crunchy but juicy texture with a single small seed
All sour currant species are very easy to identify. Look for a green, leafless shrub between 0.5 to 3 metres in height, typically between 1 and 2 metres. Older specimens may start to display browning on the trunk and thicker branches often with brown-green streaky stripes.

Figure 2. L. acida, a sour currant bush, centre of image. Royal National Park, NSW. Wikicommons.
Leptomeria acida [tree - RNP Sydney - wikicommons].jpg


Figure 3. Older specimen, L. acida, displaying green stripes along the browning branch. Royal National Park, NSW. Wikicommons.
Leptomeria acida [branch - RNP Sydney - wikicommons].jpg


While the plants do have true leaves, they are so tiny (less than 1mm in size) that the intrepid forager will never notice them. More noticeable, however, are the flower stalks extending from the branches from January through June. Flowers are usually red, yellow or white, with white-flowering species being more common in the south, especially Victoria and Tasmania, and red flowering species more common in NSW.

Figure 4. Tiny 2-3mm flowers of L. acida. Can you see the leaves? Neither can I! Flickr.
Leptomeria acida [flowers and branches - flickr].jpg


Figure 5. White flowers and purple berries of the Tasmanian L. drupacea. Atlas of Living Australia.
Leptomeria drupacea [flowers and fruit].jpg


Pollinated flowers give way to tiny (3-4mm), glistening green, red or mauve fruit globs, occasionally with minuscule white freckles on the skin. Each fruit contains a tiny, insignificant seed and a burst of delightful acidic goodness.

Figure 6. Ripe fruit of L. acida glistening in the winter sun. Dharawal National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Leptomeria acida [fruit and branch sunny] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Halved fruit specimen, L. acida. Note my fingers for scale! Dharawal National Park, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Leptomeria acida [fruit zoomed].jpg


Uses

Sour currants may be enjoyed in situ as a refreshing, albeit sour, bush snack. In places where they grow abundantly, especially the Tasmanian species, loads of the fruits may be collected and added to salads for a sour zing, or else turned into delightfully tart jams, jellies, conserves and coolis/sauces for desserts. It is probably possible to emulsify these gorgeous berries into a tart curd after mashing and whisking them with egg yolks over a double boiler, akin to making lemon or passionfruit curd, due to their inherent acidity.

Due to the hemiparasitic nature of the plants, they are likely difficult to propagate from seed due to their need to latch onto the roots of a host plant for some of their nutrient intake. I have not attempted to propagate them from cuttings. They would make amazing edible ornamentals due to their leafless nature and colourful flower splays if the difficulties of their parasitic propagation can be overcome.

Native Sarsparilla (Part 13)

Smilax glyciphylla [Plant & new growth] 20221211_151216 sml.jpg

New growth on sweet sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla) as it clambers its way into the sun. © JPM, 2022.

A drink better than cola? There is none other than the glorious sarsaparilla!

Names

Our native sarsaparilla is related to species with more than 350 specimens of worldwide distribution, from the Americas, Caribbean, Africa and Asia, all hailing from the genus Smilax (S.). Due to this global range, the plant has developed several English names, the most common of which, zarzaparrilla (sarsaparilla in English), comes from the Jamaican species, S. ornata and S. regelii. The plant is also known, particularly in North America, as catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivy and simply by the scientific name, smilax.

Australia has three prominent species, S. glyciphylla, sweet sarsaparilla, notable for its especially sweet leaves, S. calophylla and S. australis, the latter of which is also widely known as lawyer vine, barbed-wire vine or wait-a-while due to its thorny liana (vineage).

Habitat and Range

Sarsaparilla is a plant of the tropics and subtropics, although some of the Australian species, particularly the sweet sars (S. glyciphylla) can be found in temperate regions as far south as eastern Victoria. S. calophylla is found almost exclusively on the Top End and Cape York peninsula. Look for native sarsaparillas in most tropical or subtropical rainforest regions, temperate rainforest, as well as wet sclerophyll (eucalyptus) woodland and heaths.

Sarsaparilla prefers sheltered underbrush due to its ability to climb on other plants, but it will always make its way into the sun wherever it is growing. Vineage can grow in excess of 8 metres in length, usually between 3 and 5 metres from the root of the plant which is often obscured or inaccessible underneath sandstone or granite outcrops.

Figure 1. Distribution of Smilax (all species) around the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Smilax distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Scrambling, woody liana (vine) between 1-8 metres in length
  • May have brambles on the stems (S. australis and S. calophylla)
  • Leaves are 5-15 cm in length, rigid, tough and have three prominent veins running from stem to tip
  • Leaf new growth is often red with white undersides with the three lateral veins distinct
  • Flowers appear in inflorescences (a cluster emanating from a single point), mostly in summer but can be any time of the year
  • Fruit start as small green berries with undeveloped, chewy but sweet white seeds
  • Fruit ripen to a deep black with 2-3 orange-red, hard seeds
  • Crushing leaves and steeping them in water will turn the water a golden yellow colour (S. glyciphylla)
I was very surprised not to find this plant mentioned at all in Tim Low's field guide! I must thus preface this article with a tip of the Akubra to the anonymous author over at survival.ark.net.au who first brought my attention to the edible properties of this useful plant [LINK].

While the Australian bush is home to many hundreds of species of vine, the native sarsparilla tends to stand out amongst them all. The leaves are quite distinctive and the most telling identifying feature. While leaves can vary in shape, from broad to thin, sarsparilla has three (rarely, five) prominent, conspicuous veins running down the entire length of the leaf from stem to tip. Stems/branches will also sprout tendrils opposite the leaf stems, often 8-20 cm in length, which coil over everything they touch, and the S. australis variety also has a copious number of briers (as do several North American and Caribbean species).

Figure 2. Sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) with thin, long leaves. Notice the three clearly prominent veins extending the length of the leaf. This specimen also has clusters of fruit just about to ripen. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [foliage & fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) sprouts tendrils opposite their leaf stems and does not have brambles/thorns. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [tendril] 20221211_153829 sml.jpg


Figure 4. New growth of sweet sarsparilla is a distinctive red colour with white undersides (compare figure 11 below). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [new growth] 20221211_145303 sml.jpg


Figure 5. Leaves of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) are thicker and fatter than sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [plant] 20221211_153740 sml.jpg


Figure 6. Close-up of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) foliage. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [leaf] 20221211_143552 sml.jpg


Figure 7. The tendrils of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) emerge from the opposite side of the leaf stem. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.

Smilax australis [tendril] 20221211_153815 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) has sharp brambles along its vines, a key distinguishing feature from the other Australian species. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [brambles] 20221211_143915 sml.jpg


Figure 9. Cape York sarsaparilla (S. calophylla) leaves with flower buds. Note the coiling tendrils, centre top. Atlas of Living Australia. © H. Innes, 2022.
Smilax calophylla [leaves - ATLAS - H. Innes, 2022].jpeg


Native sarsaparilla is a dioecious plant, although some are hermaphroditic, meaning they usually have specified male and female specimens. Both genders will put forth flowers between early December and May, but it is the female flowers that will set into clumps of green berries which turn red-black as they ripen. The fruits seem to be edible both unripe and ripe, although ripe fruits develop one to three hard, orange-red seeds which are chewy white masses in the unripe fruits.

Figure 10. Leaves, flowers and both unripe and ripe fruits of S. australis. Atlas of Living Australia. © D. & B. Wood, 1996.
Smilax australis [flowers & foliage - Atlas Liv. Aus].jpeg


Figure 11. Close-up of female flowers for sweet sarsparilla (S. glyciphylla). Also evident is the white undersides on red new leaf growth. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [flowers] 20221211_151325 sml.jpg


Figure 12. Inflorescence of male S. calophylla flowers in the Top End. Atlas of Living Australia. © Sworboys, 2015.
Smilax calophylla [flower close up - Atlas Liv. Aus].jpeg


Figure 13. S. calophylla after ripening into clumps of edible berries. Atlas of Living Australia. © Anonymous, 2000.
Smilax calophylla [fruit & leaves - Atlas Liv. Aus.].jpeg


Uses

Fruit can be enjoyed straight from the vine at any stage of ripeness, but preferably after they reach at least 0.7 cm in size (the tiny, just-pollinated berries are astringent). They are very pleasant eating and my favourite bush food item to date. I have tried both unripe and ripe berries of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla): the former are green and the seeds are an undeveloped white mass (see figure 14 below) which can be chewed whole and are quite sweet; the latter are dark black, stain the fingers and tongue purple (like ripe mulberries), and contain one to three unpleasant, tough, orange-red seeds (see figure 15 below). Ripe fruits are best gently crushed and seeped by the dozen in boiling water and drunk as a tea, which tastes like a mild version of sarsaparilla soft drink.

Figure 14. Halved, unripe fruit of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) showing the white, undeveloped seeds. See also figure 2 above. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [bitten fruit zoomed].jpg


Figure 15. Halved, ripe fruit of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) showing the hard, developed seeds. Sheldon Walking Track, Turramurra, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [ripe fruit] sml.jpg


Leaves, especially of the sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla), are best used fresh, torn and then gently bruised in a mortar and pestle before steeping in hot water (alongside the fruits, if available) and brewed as a tea. I have found that gently crushing 3-4 leaves, fresh or dried, with a pestle, then steeping the leaves in boiling water in a teapot until they soften, helps to release their gentle sweetness and sarsaparilla tang. Leaves can be dried and crushed into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle for use in teabags. The resulting brew is a gentle yellow colour from the abundance of quercetin; the longer you steep it the more vibrant the colour. The flavour of fresh, red new growth is the strongest as they immediately impart their sweet zing (sterols) to the infusion. The tea can leave a gentle tingle on the tongue and throat for some time after drinking. I am not fond of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) for tea as its leaves result in a bland, tasteless infusion; that species is better utilised for its berries.

Figure 16. Sarsaparilla leaf tea with dried leaves (S. glyciphylla). Steeped for 24 hours, this brew was surprisingly strong and tangy. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glciphylla [Tea] sml.jpg


Roots can be dried, crushed and brewed (root beer style) into the famous sarsaparilla beverage, although one is best to do more research on the specifics of this process. I have not yet harvested a root due to their typical concealment within the crevices of Sydney's sandstone bedrock. Carbonated beverages can also be made from root brews. Roots may also be eaten raw or cooked for their potent supply of starch, as well as its alleged aphrodisiac qualities. Cooked root starch may be converted into dark carbohydrate syrup via a process I am unfamiliar with (probably similar to sugar beet syrup extraction). Dried roots may be taken as a herbal tonic for sore throats, coughs and nasal-pharyngeal infections and have long been used for this purpose in herbal medicine everywhere this plant is found. Apparently the recommended dose is 1 tsp of ground dried root, steeped in boiled water for 30 minutes. Note that digging up the root can kill the entire plant and its dozens of vines dangling everywhere from that central point. I advise harvesting leaves along with the root to avoid unnecessary waste.

Sarsaparilla has some very useful essential oils, plant acids, trace minerals and other potent phytochemicals which make it of medicinal interest. Quercetin (responsible for the yellow colour of the leaf tea), shikimic and sarsapic acids, anti-inflammatory saponins, plant sterols to promote gut health, the anti-inflammatory phytochemicals diosgenin, tigogenin and asperagenin, and minerals like zinc, selenium, chromium, magnesium, calcium and iron can all be obtained from all parts of the plant listed above. Most of the minerals and saponins are in the roots; quercetin, acids, sterols, and phytochemicals are in the leaves and berries.

Also note that the North American sarsparilla soft drink is often made from birch bark tar, not the Smilax plant root proper, so the two can taste different. Real sars brewed from real Smilax roots and/or fruit is so much better!

Caution: Look-alikes!

Australia also happens to be home to a native species of "false sarsaparilla," Hardenbergia (with numerous cultivars, e.g. H. violaceae, H. monophylla, H. comptoniana, etc), so called due to the efforts of early explorers to use the roots and leaves of this look-alike as a substitute for Smilax plants. This look-alike is otherwise known as "happy wanderer" due to its excellent sprawling, wall-climbing habits. Unlike true sarsaparilla, Hardenbergia has only one prominent central leaf vein on the leaf; its flowers are sprays of purple (rarely, white), pea-like flowers which turn into green, pea-like pods which dry out and turn brown when ripe, containing 4-10 black seeds. Whether the early colonists were successful in their 'false sars' experiments with this plant's roots remains uncertain, and I cannot recommend using this look-alike for any purpose other than adorning a wall or rock ledge as a fantastic native flowering creeper.

Figure 17. Sweet sarsparilla (S. glyciphylla), top, growing alongside Hardenbergia violaceae, bottom. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax vs Hardenbergia 20221211_145420 sml.jpg


Figure 18. The flowers of Hardensbergia (H. violaceae, pictured) look nothing like sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.). Atlas of Living Australia. © Sarilla, 2021.

Hardenbergia violaceae [flowers - ATLAS - Sarilla, 2021].jpeg


Another creeping look-alike common where Smilax grows is the introduced pest species Asparagus asparagoides, commonly known as bridal creeper for its 19th century use in wedding flower arrangements. Its tapered leaves and fruit look similar to sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla), but are easily distinguished with details. Bridal creeper does not have the three prominent lateral veins on its leaves; it does not grow tendrils or brambles; its fruit have three distinctive lobes/segments; and the fruits ripen from green to an opaque white-pink-red. They are likely to be poisonous; bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) is a close relative of the asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus, Asparagus plumosus, etc.) which has similar, but poisonous, red berries. True Smilax fruit always ripens green-red-black. It grows from a thick rhizome clump with dozens of watery tubers attached, making it difficult to exterminate.

Figure 19. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) could potentially be confused with sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) by a novice forager. Notice they do not have the distinctive three lateral leaf veins of sarsaparilla (Smilax) plants (compare figures 2, 5-6 and 9 above), and the berries are about 30-50% larger. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Asparagus asparagoides [Smilax lookalike] 20221211_142635 sml.jpg


Figure 20. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) flowers look nothing like sarsparilla (Smilax spp.). Note the complete lack of tendrils, too. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2010.
Asparagus asparagoides [ Flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2010].jpeg


Figure 21. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) fruit at various stages of ripeness. Note the lobes on the fruit; sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.) fruit are round with no lobes. This plant tends to die back to its rhizomes/tubers in winter after fruiting (note the yellowing leaves); sarsaparilla does not. Atlas of Living Australia. © N. Green, 2022.
Asparagus asparagoides [Fruit - ATLAS - N. Green, 2022].jpeg

Native Limes (Part 14)

[Micro]citrus [Foliage] sml.jpg

Native lime. Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2022.

If it looks like citrus, smells like citrus, and tastes like citrus, is it a citrus? What if they're really small?

Names

Australia happens to be home to a number of native citrus species that have been bush food favourites for many millennia. Several decades ago these were classified under the subfamilies Eremocitrus and Microcitrus, and some older works still utilise these classifications. However, recent taxonomy has simplified the matter and all Australian native limes are now all classified as Citrus (C.). Prominent wild varieties include the desert lime, C. glauca; the finger lime, C. australasica; the wild round lime, C. australis; the Mt. White lime, C. garrawayi; and the endangered Russell River lime, C. inodora.

Dozens of hybrid cultivars have been selectively bred from native Australian limes, especially the finger limes, resulting in an immense array of subvarieties exhibiting fruit of every colour imaginable - red, yellow, pink, orange, green, brown and purple e.g. [LINK] (no affiliation). The desert lime, C. glauca, has also been experimented with to produce hardy, drought-tolerant root stock for grafting purposes for commercial citrus varieties.

Habitat and Range

In the wild, native citrus have a rather limited range. C. australasica, the finger limes, and C. australis, the wild round limes, are rainforest plants which grow almost exclusively in wet, well-draining, rich-soiled regions of South-East Queensland, from the NSW border region to Gympie. The Mount White lime may be found exclusively in that region of the Cape York peninsula, as can the rare Russell River lime, also at home in Cape York. Look for small, under-story shrubs of 1 to 2 metres in height, usually standing alone as native citrus do not cope well with competition. The rainforest varieties prefer semi-sheltered or sheltered situations but do not cope with heavy frost very well, making them unsuitable for inland regions.

Desert limes (C. glauca) are somewhat more common, frequenting the arid regions of western Queensland, the Northern Territory, and western NSW. Look for them near dry creek beds, billabongs and rock outcrops, although some may occur sitting alone in the middle of the desert. In the dry season, desert citrus will lose all their leaves and just resemble a green, spiky shrub. After rain their thick, stubby leaves will reappear, along with splays of white flowers and copious small, round fruits. Desert limes are suitable for open or dry situations with full sun and can cope with heavy desert frosts.

Due to extensive research and hybridisation with Australian native citrus, especially the C. australasica (finger lime) varieties, commercially available cultivars mean that every Australian garden may now be home to these beautiful plants.

Figure 1. Distribution of native citrus (all species) across the continent. Note that this map includes commercial citrus cultivars. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]Citrus distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Small understory shrub or tree, typically 1-3 metres in height
  • Branches and stems have thorns 2-5 cm in length
  • Leaves are small, 2-4 cm in length (except C. inodora, which has large, 5-10 cm orange-like leaves)
  • White or yellow flowers emerging twice per year with a strong citrus fragrance (except C. inodora, which produces no citrus oils in flower or fruit)
  • Fruits are thin and elongated (finger limes, Russell River and Mt White limes), or stubby and round (desert and native limes)
  • Fruit flesh exhibits a 'caviar' effect when squeezed out
Generally, Australian citrus, especially the finger limes and desert limes, have short or stubby leaves about the size of a thumbnail, 1 to 2 cm long, and thorny stems like some European or Asian lemon species. The Russell River lime bucks the trend, having large, orange-like leaves of 5-10 cm length but retaining the thorns of the other native species. All species display white flowers similar to other citrus species, although the Russell River lime lacks the strong aroma of commercial citrus varieties.

Fruit can be round (C. australis; C. glauca) or elongated (C. australasica; C. garrawayi; C. inodora), usually green in colour, occasionally turning yellow when fruit becomes fully ripe. Some varieties, especially the commercial finger lime hybrid cultivars (C. australasica), have great varieties of colour in the fruits, as covered above.

Figure 2. Desert lime tree, C. glauca. This is a dormant specimen, waiting for rain, displaying its very long thorns. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus glauca [DESERT LIME - dormant - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 3. Desert lime, C. glauca, in full bloom after rain. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus glauca [DESERT LIME - Foliage & flowers - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 4. C. australis, the native lime, also in the header image at the top of this article. Stubby green leaves, thorny stems and small round fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus australis [Foliage & fruit - ATLAS] sml.jpeg


Figure 5. Mt. White lime, C. garrawayi, of the Cape York peninsula. Again, note the stubby leaves, prominent thorns and elongated fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus garrawayae [foliage & fruit -ATLAS - Mt. White Lime, Cape York].jpeg


Figure 6. Russell River lime, C. inodora. This species develops into long yellow fruits. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus inodora [Foliage & flower - ATLAS - Russell River, Cape York].jpeg


Figure 7. Round lime, C. australis. From Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
[Micro]citrus [Fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 8. Commercial finger lime cultivar 'Byron Sunrise' exhibiting the classical 'caviar' effect. Atlas of Living Australia.
[Micro]citrus australasica [Red Fruit - ATLAS - SEQ].jpeg


Uses

Native citrus, especially the finger limes, have had increasing culinary interest over the last few decades. Commercially available cultivars are well known for exhibiting the 'caviar' effect (figure 8 above), due to the fact that the juicy nodules inside the fruit do not readily stick to the skin or pith. Thus, they can simply be squeezed out of the fruits after cutting them across the girth. They can be added as a delightful, zinging acidic garnish to any dish that appreciates a citrus tang, such as seafood, pasta, salads and cocktails.

Fruits of the desert lime were sought out for their vitamin C by First Nations and colonists alike. All native citrus are suitable for marmalades, jams, jellies and candied peel. Zests may be used to evoke the potent citrus oil flavours, some of which are similar to lemon or lime. The variety I sampled above (figure 7) tasted almost exactly like the pub drink "lemon, lime and bitters", minus the fizz! They make excellent Korean preserve teas.

With so many finger lime cultivars now available in Australian nurseries across the continent, there is no reason for any Australian garden to lack one of these delightful Australian limes.

Native Grapes / Water Vines (Part 15)

Cissus hypoglauca [5-leaf grape, jungle grape, water vine - foliage] sml.jpg

Five-leaf water vine. © JPM, 2022.

Vines, vines, glorious vines! Amidst the tangled mess there are grapes to find!

Names

Native grapes come from several separate genera of woody liana plants more commonly referred to as water vines or pepper vines. While not all water vines are completely edible, there are at least seven known and utilised palatable species: the northern Ampelocissus acetosa, otherwise known as wild grapes or djabaru; Cayratia clematidea (native grape or bushy water vine); Cayratia trifolia, formerly Cissus trifolia (bush grape or three-leaf water vine); Cissus antarctica (kangaroo vine or water vine); Cissus hypoglauca (jungle grape or five-leaf water vine); Clematicissus opaca (pepper vine); and Tetrastigma nitens (native grape, shiny-leaf grape or three-leaf water vine).

Some of the names overlap; almost all of the plants may be commonly referred to as "water vine", and the careful student will note that there are two "three-leaf" water vines, both with distinctive identifying features, detailed below.

Habitat and Range

Another rain forest vine by nature, native grapes thrive along the length of Australia's east coast and top end. They are prominent understory creepers, being found clambering over rain forest giants and wet eucalyptus forests, especially along the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range. They grow in well-watered areas, such as near creeks, waterholes, dams, valleys and gullies, or anywhere rainfall or underground water is reasonably ample and the soil is rich and deep. Where they occur they usually clog easy foot traffic through the bush and can overtake areas and smother smaller trees and shrubs to death if left unchecked. Native grapes are typically unsuited to dry or arid areas of the continent, although the northern djabaru accommodates the seasonal dry rather well. Native grapes are mostly absent from western and southern Australia, although Cissus antarctica (kangaroo vine) and Cissus hypoglauca (five-leaf water vine) can be found as far south as the eastern corner of Victoria. Where native grapes occur they can usually be found prolifically.

Figure 1. Distribution of Ampelcissus acetosa (djabaru) across the Top End. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [Wild Grape] distribution.png


Figure 2. Distribution of Cayratia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia [Native Grape, Slender Grape, Bushy Water Vine] distribution.png


Figure 3. Distribution of Cissus (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cissus distribution.png


Figure 4. Distribution of Clematicissus opaca (pepper vine) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Clematicissus opaca [pepper vine] distribution.png


Figure 5. Distribution of Tetrastigma nitens (three-leaf water vine) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tetrastigma nitens [native grape, shiny-leaved grape, three-leaf water vine] distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Woody, sprawling liana (vines), 3-10 metres in length, often choking the plants they grow among
  • May exhibit brambles on the stems (Cissus antarctica)
  • Vineage will readily drip water if cut and angled vertically.
  • Leaves occur singly (Cissus antarctica only), or in splays of three, five, or seven to ten.
  • Some species have white or light undersides to the leaves (Cissus hypoglauca)
  • Flowers appear in spring (September-November) in inflorescences (clusters) and resemble grape flowers
  • Flowers set into round, green, unripe grapes
  • Grapes ripen dark black or red, with 3-5 grape-like seeds inside
  • Grapes have grey-green flesh just like black or red grapes
  • May have a significant tuber of 3 to 5 kg at the vineage base (Pepper vine only, Clematicissus opaca)
Each of the most edible species of native grape have unique identifying features, usually the number and shape of the leaves. Note that it is possible to stumble across a less palatable varieties with similar features in the foliage. The less edible varieties are not particularly poisonous; rather, the fruits will be incredibly insipid, bitter or astringent, making them not worth the effort to harvest. Water vines, whatever the genus, will usually have coiling tendrils that emerge from the stem opposite where the leaves emerge.

Figure 6. Ampelocissus acetosa foliage, the northern djabaru, has splays of seven to ten smooth-edged leaves. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 7. A young native grape (Cayratia clematidea) with serrated leaf edges, typically in splays of five to seven leaves. Note the coiling tendrils (right and top-right, grasping bracken fern tips). Hornsby Blue Gum Track, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cayratia clematidea [leaf] 20221120_154022 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Cayratia trifolia has luscious, leathery leaves with slightly serrated edges, always in splays of three. Serrations can be more prominent than in this image. Flickr.
Cayratia trifolia [Foliage - flickr].jpg


Figure 9. Cissus antarctica, kangaroo vine, always has large, long, single leaves. They can be smooth-edged or serrated. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [foliage] sml.jpg


Figure 10. The underside of Cissus antarctica leaves exhibits small, round nodules near the central vein, a key identifying feature. Note also the coiling tendril, left of image. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Cissus antarctica [foliage underside] sml.jpg


Figure 11. Cissus antarctica new growth exhibiting the distinctive brown hairs. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [new foliage, brown fuzz] sml.jpg


Figure 12. Cissus antarctica also has brambles on the thick, main stems, a key identifying feature for this species. Hornsby Blue Gum Track, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Cissus antarctica [brambles] 20221119_144051 sml.jpg


Figure 13. Cissus hypoglauca, five-leaf water vine, has distinctive splays of five, rarely four or six, dark green leaves. Leaf edges may be smooth or serrated, often on the same plant! See also header image at the top of this article. BONUS - Can you spot the four sarsparilla (Smilax australis) leaves in this picture (refer to part 13 of this series)? Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [vineage] sml.jpg


Figure 14. The undersides of Cissus hypoglauca leaves (five-leaf water vine) are a fluffy white colour, making this prominent species very distinct and easy to identify. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [foliage underside] sml.jpg


Figure 15. New spring growth on a five-leaf water vine (Cissus hypoglauca). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [new shoots] 20221211_142110 sml.jpg


Figure 16. Clematicissus opaca, pepper vine, has splays of three (rarely, four or five) leaves in an almost fleur-de-lis pattern. Leaves may have smooth or serrated edges. Atlas of Living Australia.

Clematicissus opaca [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 17. Tetrastigma nitens has glossy leaves in splays of three. Cayratia trifolia leaves are more matte; compare figure 8 above. Note the coiling tendrils, centre-top. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tetrastigma nitens [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Native grapes put out clumps (inflorescence) of flowers in summer, with fruit forming between February to June, almost the same as cultivated grape season. Young fruit, like cultivated grapes, will start green and generally ripen to a dark red, black or purple.

Figure 18. Ampelocissus acetosa, or djabaru, flowers. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [flowers - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 19. Fruits of the Top End djabaru, Ampelocissus acetosa. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [Djabaru - fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 20. Cayratia clematidea flowers and unripe fruit forming. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia clematidea [Flowers - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 21. Cayratia trifolia flower inflorescence. Wikimedia Commons.
Cayratia trifolia [Flowers - wikicommons].jpg


Figure 22. Cayratia trifolia with ripe fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia trifolia [Bush grape, Threeleaf Water Vine, ex Cissus - Leaves & fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 23. Kangaroo vine, Cissus antarctica, flower buds. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [flower buds] sml.jpg


Figure 24. Cissus antarctica fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cissus antarctica [kangaroo Vine, water vine - foliage & fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 25. Cissus hypoglauca ripe fruit. Sadly it was a bit late in the season and this sorry specimen was all I found. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [grape] sml.jpg


Figure 26. Clematicissus opaca, pepper vine, with flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Clematicissus opaca [foliage and flowers - Wikicommons].jpg


Figure 27. Tetrastigma nitens displaying the four stigmas on the flowers, hence the name. Phytoimages.edu.au.
Tetrastigma nitens [Flower - phytoimages.siu.edu].jpg


Uses

Native grapes may be consumed in the field, although one must get the correct season for the best flavour. Sadly, many native grapes have an insipid burning taste that remains on the palate regardless of preparation method (raw, cooked or fermented). Areas where fruit is abundant may be collected en masse and processed as per wine. Fruit may also be cooked into jams, jellies and conserves. Cooking can marginally improve the flavour of insipid fruit; any native grapes that still taste bitter or unpalatable after cooking should be avoided. It is probably possible to sun-dry grapes into sultanas, although all native grapes have seeds. Seeds can be probably be crushed to release grapeseed oils, although I am unsure of their precise chemical properties due to lack of available information. Take any native grapeseed oil with extreme care until it is ascertained it is safe for human consumption.

Apparently the pepper vine (Clematicissus opaca only) has a substantial tuber which can be dug from the base of the plant, often exceeding 5 kilograms. While not an important or common food of the first nation tribes of northern and coastal Queensland, due to their size the tubers can supply a significant quantity of carbohydrates to sustain life in an emergency situation. I had difficulty acquiring more information on the use and preparation of pepper vine tubers, and have yet to encounter this species in my foraging journeys. Consume with care and do your due diligence prior to utilising this part of the plant.

As per their other common name, water vine, native grapes can grow thick stems that dangle down from the rain forest canopy. These thick, woody vines can be cut open with a knife, axe or stone and pure, fresh drinking water extracted directly from them. Note that this will kill the vine above the point where it was cut, but vines grow from a hardy root base just like cultivated grapes and will recover themselves without any human effort. Water vines have been utilised for this purpose for millenia. Water harvested in this manner cannot be kept for more than a day or two as natural enzymes and bacterium in the plant will cause it to go off.

Native Figs (Part 16)

Ficus macrophylla [Lord Howe Island Fig] sml.jpg

Lord Howe Island Fig, Sydney Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, I am so glad that all of them did not suddenly fall dead!

Names

Australia is home to more than forty native species of Ficus (F.), or figs, all of which have edible, but not always palatable, fruit. These include common or well-known species such as the impressive buttressed Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla), the related aerial-rooted Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa), the rainforest strangler fig (F. watkinsiana), the Top End's white fig or banyan (F. virens), the trunk-fruiting cluster fig (F. racemosa), a number of sandpaper figs, of which the most common are the creek sandpaper (F. coronata) and the sweet sandpaper (F. opposita), and the inland desert or rock fig (F. platypoda). There is also the uncommon Top End peach-leaved fig (F. coronulata), among other uncommon subspecies.

Many introduced species of figs, such as the common fruit fig (F. caria), the weeping fig (F. benjamina), the fiddle-leaf fig (F. lyrata) and the wall creeping fig (F. pumila), are grown as ornamentals throughout Australia and will not be covered here. All introduced species also have edible fruit, however, especially F. caria, the commercial variety available in markets and shops across the country.

Habitat and Range

Australian figs are water-lovers by nature, and will always be found near a permanent water source - oceans, lakes, rivers, billabongs or underground springs. Many major species, such as Moreton Bay, Port Jackson, strangler, white and cluster figs will grow into truly monstrous trees sometimes exceeding 50 m in height with 30 m circumference canopies, under which virtually nothing can grow. The sandpaper figs are typically much smaller, usually between 2 to 10 metres, but are also common along creeks, rivers, gullies and ravines the length of the eastern coast of Australia. Desert figs are common to rock outcrops, cliffs and escarpments away from fire zones throughout the interior, north-west and Queensland coast, and almost always occupy a location where there is a permanent underground water source. Many native species are prominent in the tropics, such as the Top End and Cape York, and along the Great Dividing Range, becoming less frequent in distribution the further south one travels to about the Gippsland region of eastern Victoria.

Figure 1. Distribution of Ficus (all species) across the continent. This map includes the introduced European/Middle Eastern common fig (F. caria), grown commercially in southern SA, VIC and WA. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus spp Distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Often large trees, 10+ metres in height; 1-3 metres for sandpaper figs
  • Large, buttressed bases
  • Aerial roots (except sandpaper figs)
  • Spear-tip shaped leathery leaves; can be large (Moreton Bay, Port Stephens and sandpaper figs), or smaller (cluster fig)
  • Leaves may feel like sandpaper (sandpaper fig only)
  • Broken leaves and branches exude an irritating white latex sap
  • Fruits in bunches at the end of each branch or along the trunk and boughs
  • Fruits are green, yellow or pink unripe, and ripen to a deep red or black
  • Fruits contain hundreds of tiny seeds and internal flowers
  • Fruits may contain small pollinator wasps
  • Fruits attractive to bats, birds and native marsupials
Tropical and subtropical native figs such as the Moreton Bay, Port Jackson, white and strangler are generally easily identified due to their immense buttressed or aerial-rooted main trunks (see also header image above, which is the multi-trunked Lord Howe Island subspecies of F. macrophylla).

Figure 2. The burgeoning canopy and impressive buttress of a Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla) introduced to Santa Clara, California. Wikimedia Commons.
Ficus macrophylla [Moreton Bay Fig - Buttress - Wikimedia - Santa Barbara California].jpg


Figure 3. Splays of aerial roots from a Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa). Wikipedia.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Trunk & aerial roots - Wikipedia - Aliab].jpg


Figure 4. The fortified buttress of a rainforest strangler fig (F. watkinsiana). Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus watkinsiana [Strangler - Buttress - ATLAS - F.M. Bailey 2020].jpeg


Figure 5. White figs (F. virens) displaying their multi-trunks and aerial roots at Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. The leaves distinguish this tree from the Lord Howe Island fig. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Aerial Roots - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


These rainforest monsters also tend to have thick leathery leaves and clusters of fruit, most of which are green or pink when unripe and ripen to a vivid red, purple or black. The fruit of these figs is always eagerly sought out by many species of birds, possums, and other nocturnal tree-climbing marsupials. They are a favourite of flying fox colonies, who will often fly for kilometres to feast nightly on fruiting trees.

Figure 6. Unripe fruit and glossy, leathery leaves of a Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla; the Lord Howe Island fig is identical). New leaves on this species are a copper colour. This species fruit turn red when ripe. This tree had hundreds of these fruit clusters on it. Sydney Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus macrophylla [Large-leaf Fig - Fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Foliage of the Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa). This species is very similar to the Moreton Bay fig above (figure 6), differing primarily because of its rusty-undersided leaves. Cabarita Wharf. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Foliage] sml.jpg


Figure 8. Foliage of the white fig (F. virens). Note the very prominent white leaf veins for this species. Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Foliage - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 9. White fig (F. virens) fruits along the outer branches near the leaf stems. Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Fruit & foliage - Arcadia, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 10. Fallen ripe fruit of the strangler fig. The fruit of these figs has a small 'nipple' at the tip. Unlike the other tropical species, whose trunks generally hang low and can be easily climbed for picking, strangler figs cannot be easily climbed and can exceed 50 m in height due to the fact they start life up in the boughs of a host tree they will strangle to death. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus watkinsiana [Strangler - Fruit - ATLAS - P. Woodall 2020].jpeg


Cluster figs are somewhat smaller than the rain forest giants covered above, usually reaching between 10-20 metres in height. They are distinctive in that, like their distant cousin the sycamore fig of the Mediterranean and Middle East, they will fruit prolifically from clusters which emerge from the main trunk and boughs.

Figure 11. Cluster fig (F. racemosa) trunk, displaying its signature fruit clusters. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus racemosa [Cluster Fig - Trunk & Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 12. Cluster fig fruit in varying stages of ripeness. Note the small size of the leaves of the cluster fig (top and right). Atlas of Living Australia. © I. Daniels, 2017.
Ficus racemosa [Cluster Fig - Fruit - ATLAS - I. Daniels 2017].jpeg


The sandpaper figs are so-named because of their distinctive, sandpaper-textured leaves. Sandpaper figs generally have small fruits about 1-2 cm long which are usually furry. Some species of these figs, similar to the cluster fig, will fruit prolifically from their main trunk and major boughs when they become older.

Figure 13. From a distance, the creek sandpaper fig (F. coronata) is an unassuming small tree, usually 1.5 to 3 m. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus coronata [Sandpaper Fig - Tree - Mt Annan] sml.jpg


Figure 14. Foliage and unripe fruit (foreground, blurry) on a creek sandpaper fig. Notice the rough, sandpaper-like dimples on the leaves. It really does feel like sandpaper. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus coronata [Sandpaper Fig - Leaves & unripe fruit - Hornsby Blue Gum Track] sml.jpg


Figure 15. Ripe fruit on a creek sandpaper fig. Fruit has a prominent 'crown' feature at the tip, hence the name 'coronata'. Atlas of Living Australia. © D. Woods, 1998.
Ficus coronata [Creek Sandpaper - Fruit - ATLAS - D. Wood 1998].jpeg


Figure 16. Some older specimens of the creek sandpaper fig may exhibit fruit clustering (cauliflory) on the trunk. Wikipedia.
Ficus coronata [Trunk Fruits cauliflory - Wikipedia - Peter Woodard 2020].jpg


Figure 17. The sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita) looks very similar to its southern cousin, being found mostly along the Queensland coast. Fruits of this species lack the 'crown' feature at the tip of the fruit. Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus opposita [Foliage - Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


The desert or rock fig is almost always found occupying impossible rock faces, outcrops or escarpments. It can be common on the central Queensland coast as well as inland, especially in the south-western parts of the Northern Territory, especially at Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the MacDonnell ranges.

Figure 18. An example of the buttress roots of a desert fig (F. platypoda) occupying an impossible location . Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Trunk - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 19. Foliage and unripe fruit clusters of an established desert fig. Unripe fruit is typically yellow, turning red. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Leaves & Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 20. Ripe and unripe fruit of the desert fig. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Uses

Native figs fruit prolifically, often two or three times per year, and have long seasons of several months fruit bearing, or as seasonal rain permits in the case of the desert figs. Because of their generally large size, trees can bear thousands of fruit, some of which may be inaccessible to humans due to the height of the tree (this is especially true of strangler figs).

Fruits may be eaten raw, dried or cooked into jams, preserves or pastries. Ripe figs will fall off into the hand when gently tugged and should feel soft and squishy; avoid any fruit that feels hard to the touch (unripe) or has begun to rot. Most of the native figs have hundreds, if not thousands, of dry, mealy seeds and pollen towards the centre of each fruit which are often unpleasant to eat and can be spat out or removed prior to tasting. I personally just endure. Some varieties, such as the strangler fig and sweet sandpaper fig, taste better than others. Moreton Bay and Port Jackson figs I have tried have been pleasant, albeit with a dry, mealy aftertaste from the seed and pollen mass. You may need to fight fruit bats for ripe, in-season figs; for this reason, harvesting figs is best done during the day when fruit bats are asleep elsewhere.

Figure 21. What to expect inside a Port Jackson (F. rubiginosa) fig. Cabarita Wharf. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 22. What to expect inside a white fig (F. virens). Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Old Fruit - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 23. What to expect inside a sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita). Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus opposita [Cut Fruit - Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


Due to the symbiotic relationship almost all figs have with certain species of tiny pollinator and non-pollinator wasps, it is possible to find dead wasps and/or their grubs inside both ripe and unripe fruit. A key sign of wasp activity will be a small hole (or several), about the width of a full stop, bored straight through the skin of the fig fruit, from the inside, by the female as she emerges in search of another fig to crawl into and lay her eggs. Male wasps spend their entire life cycle inside the fig and never see the light of day. If the prospect of eating small wasps or grubs disturbs you, halve all fruit and inspect prior to consumption. Note that natural enzymes in the fig fruit will completely dissolve the wasps who have crawled into fruit, laid their eggs and then died. The wasps and their grubs are perfectly safe to eat (inadvertently!) and are not known to harbour any diseases harmful to humans.

Many of the First Nations of Australia would grind dried fig fruits, seeds, wasps and all, into a paste for long-term food storage. The paste can be eaten as is, or mixed with other seed or grain flours to make a dense johnny-cake-like bread.

In some Asian cultures, such as southern Chinese, Thai and Cambodian, the reddish new season leaf growth of species like the white fig (F. virens) was cooked as a vegetable in soups and curries. I am not certain if this process may be copied for other species of fig such as the Moreton Bay or Port Jackson figs (see caution below). Leaves of all species of sandpaper fig can be used to smooth the surfaces of wooden objects, and have been used for this purpose for thousands of years by First Nations people.

Figure 24. Edible new growth on a white fig (F. virens). It should be cooked prior to consumption. Arcadia, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [New Foliage 3 - Arcadia, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


In some places of the world, especially Nagaland, India, the aerial roots of fig trees are harnessed, trained and cultivated to form living bridges over rivers and chasms.

Figure 25. Living fig root bridges. Nongriat village, Meghalaya. Flickr. © A. U. Bose, n.d.
Ficus [Living Bridge - Flickr - A. U. Bose].jpg


Caution!

The white sap (latex) of all figs is a major topical irritant due to the high levels of toxic alkaloids and should never be taken internally. When picking figs, avoid unnecessarily breaking leaves and branches, and avoid getting latex from the fruit stem on your skin or in your eyes. New season growth seems to have lower toxicity latex, hence leaf use by some cultures for some species of fig. The latex of one Indian species of fig (F. elastica) has been experimented with for commercial rubber production without much success.

With that said, the crushed leaves and latex of the sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita) is known to remove fungal skin infections such as tinea or ringworm. Latex from other species is known to have anti-cancer and antibacterial properties and thus make it useful for topically treating warts, corns, skin cancers as well as cuts and abrasions (do not apply to healthy skin). As with all medicinal applications of Australian bush foods, please do your due diligence and consult with First Nations or other Australian herbal specialists before utilising fig latex as a topical remedy for any condition.

Bolwarra (Part 17)

Eupomatia laurina [bolwarra foliage] sml.jpg

Bolwarra, Eupomatia laurina, in Mt. Annan Botanical Garden, Camden. © JPM, 2022.

A throwback to Gondwana, apparently! Do you dare to eat these ancient, fragrant fruits?

Names

Hailing from the ancient plant genus Eupomatia (E.), these relics of a lost world are still happy to call Australia and Papua New Guinea home. All Australian species commonly go by a First Nations monniker, bolwarra, and this is their most common name. There are three species of bolwarra known on this continent: E. laurina, otherwise known as the copper laurel; E. bennettii, the small bolwarra; and the rare E. barbata, the northern bolwarra. All species may also be referred to as the native guava, to which they are very distantly related.

Habitat and Range

Bolwarra is a rainforest understorey plant, occurring in its native range amidst the humid east coast climes. Bolwarra prefers rich, moist, semi- or completely shaded areas with constant humidity and does not tolerate winter frosts or open, dry, windy areas of the interior. It will happily grow in mountainous regions up to 1,300m elevation, such as in Papua New Guinea. The larger and more prolific bolwarra, or copper laurel, E. laurina, can be found in tropical, subtropical and temperate valleys, either rainforest or wet sclerophyll (eucalyptus), the length of the east coast from south-east Queensland to the eastern corner of Victoria. The small bolwarra, E. bennetti, is found south of Fraser Island in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales, as far south as the Nambucca river, but especially in the Gold Coast and Coffs Harbour hinterland regions; it prefers wet eucalyptus forests. The Northern bolwarra is relatively rare in the wild. Its native range exists in the hinterland rainforests between Ingham and Cooktown and the Cairns region between; it is easily missed due to its short stature.

Figure 1. Distribution of Eupomatia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Eupomatia distribution map.png


Identification

Bolwarra is a woody, understorey plant. E. laurina is the largest, usually standing between 3-5 m in height in the wild, but some old specimens have been recorded exceeding 15 m. The small bolwarra and northern bolwarra are shrubs, rarely exceeding 1 m in height. They propagate readily from seed, with germination rates often exceeding 70-80%. They cannot be propagated from cuttings.

Branches are typically gangly 'zig-zag' stems with long, glossy, veinous, alternating lance-tip leaves between 5-20 cm in length (see header image at top of article for E. laurina, and figures 2-4 below). Older branches may exhibit green-brown stripes (figure 6).

Flowers emerge along the stem (E. laurina, E. barbata) or at the growing tips (E. bennettii) and resemble small green pods until they split open, revealing their delightful cream-white flowers with pink-red anthers (figures 2, 4-5).

Flowers are pollinated by a species of weevil (Elleschodes spp., see figure 5) and set into small,1-4 cm, green, urn-shaped fruits (figures 3, 6-7). E. laurina has the largest fruit of all the species. Fruit turn yellow-brown and emit a strong smell when fully ripe, often tumbling from the tree onto the ground where they are devoured by scrub turkeys, cassowaries, wallabies and feral pigs. The fruits are similar to guava, being filled with a cream-brown jelly-like flesh dotted with dozens of hard, inedible seeds (figures 8-9).

Figure 2. Small bolwarra (E. bennettii) leaves and flowers. Atlas of Living Australia.
Eupomatia bennettii [small bolwarra - flowers and foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 3. Northern bolwarra (E. barbata) displaying its long, glossy leaves, zig-zag stem and a single unripe fruit, centre. Atlas of Living Australia. © Kerry Coleman, 2010.
Eupomatia barbata [Cooktown bolwarra - foliage and fruit - ATLAS - Kerry Coleman 2010].jpeg


Figure 4. Bolwarra (E. laurina) foliage, buds and flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Eupomatia laurina [flowers and foliage - wikicommons].jpg


Figure 5. Opening flower of E. laurina with pollinator weevils (Elleschodes spp.). Wikipedia. © P. Woodard, 2020.
Eupomatia laurina [Flower & Elleschodes - P. Woodard, 2020].jpg


Figure 6. Unripe bolwarra fruit (E. laurina). This fruit specimen was approximately 4 cm in diameter. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.
Eupomatia laurina [bolwarra fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Ripe small bolwarra (E. bennettii) fruit. Atlas of Living Australia. © G. Tasney, 2021.
Eupomatia bennettii [small bolwarra fruit, ATLAS, G. Tasney 2021].jpeg


Figure 8. Halved ripe bolwarra (E. laurina) fruit. © fruitwarehouse.blogspot.com, 2012.
Eupomatia laurina [cut fruit - fruitwarehouse.blogspot.com 2012].jpg


Figure 9. Halved small bolwarra (E. bennettii) fruit. This one looks like it was picked early, i.e. unripe. Flickr.
Eupomatia bennettii [small bolwarra - halved fruit - flickr].jpg


Uses

Bolwarra fruit can be enjoyed fresh as soon as they turn yellow-brown and begin to emit their pungent, ripe aroma. The seeds are, like guava, inedible and should be discarded (or, better, germinated). Due to the strong fragrance of the ripe fruit, bolwarra has a niche use as a fruit-spice for various culinary preparations. Ripe bolwarra fruits will readily impart their unique fragrance to drinks, sauces, jams, jellies, pastries and curries. Fruit flesh can also be extracted, separated from the seeds, mashed into a paste and then sun-dried and powdered as a unique Australian kitchen spice.

The long, fibrous outer bark of larger bolwarra trees was also traditionally used as cordage for fishing nets by many First Nation tribes.

It would be a delight to see bolwarra sitting in spice racks here and internationally. All that is lacking is a brave entrepreneur willing to develop a commercial crop for spice production.

Warrigal Greens/Tetragon (Part 18)

Tetragonia tetragonoides [plant - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg

Warrigal greens, Sydney Bicentennial Park. © JPM, 2022.

The world's first native Australian weed, it's as good a substitute for spinach as you can find!

Names

Hailing from the exclusively southern-hemisphere genus Tetragonia (T.), a group of plants with at least 85 catalogued species, these fleshy trailing creepers go by quite a number of names both botanically and colloquially. Botanically, the most common species in Australia are as follows: T. tetragonoides, otherwise known as warrigal greens, New Zealand spinach, Botany Bay spinach, Cook's cabbage, sea spinach and tetragon, and in New Zealand as kōkihi in the Maori language; T. implexicoma, also known as bower spinach; T. eremaea; T. moorei; T. cristata, which could also be called crystal spinach; T. diptera; and T. decumbens. There are several dozen other species in Australia, but they are little researched and photographed and thus not worthy of further mention. In the article to follow, I refer to all species generally as tetragon, and the other species specifically by either their botanical or colloquial name.

These plants have been long known and utilised in Africa and are occasionally known as African spinach, the most common species of which, not found naturally in Australia, is T. nigrescens. African species will not be otherwise covered here.

Habitat and Range

Tetragon are, surprisingly, saline and clay-loving herbaceous plants. They can be found in the dune lines just behind beaches along most of the sub-tropical coast of Australia; clambering over rocky outcrops near the ocean; behind mangroves and estuary regions, usually just above the waterline; and in desert dunes, salt and clay pan regions such as Lake Eyre and the Red Centre. Wherever there is salinity, tetragon are sure to find a home nearby. Tetragon dislike the humidity of the tropics, not typically being found further north than Rockhampton in the east, Alice Springs in the centre and Exmouth in the west.

Tetragonia as a genus has global distribution, but originally limited to the southern hemisphere, especially southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific islands. It was encountered by Captain Cook in New Zealand and again in Botany Bay. Taken to England in the late 18th century by Joseph Banks, the Australian species T. tetragonoides became the first Australian plant to be cultivated internationally as a vegetable and soon became an invasive, non-native weed wherever it was introduced, including in the United States and Europe.

In its native habitat of Australia, T. tetragonides, more commonly called warrigal greens nowadays, can be found along the east coast from Bundaberg down to Melbourne; Tasmania and Flinders Island; northern and western NSW, especially north of Dubbo into southern-central Queensland; throughout South Australia, especially between Lake Torrens and Lake Frome and the Innamincka region; and lastly the Perth and Albany regions of Western Australia. Bower spinach, T. implexicoma, can be found on much of the southern Australian coastline from Geraldton in WA, all along WA southern coastline, the SA and Victorian coastlines and as far east as Eden in southern NSW, and the Tasmanian coastline. T. eremaea is common inland, especially in western NSW, eastern, central and southern SA, and central & southern WA. T. moorei is common west of Griffith along the Murray-Darling rivers heading into SA, especially the Mildura district, and also west of Bourke, NSW; in SA around Innamincka & Strzelecki deserts; and in WA in the mid-west & Esperance Gold fields regions. T. cristata can be found only in the Mid-west region of WA, in clay soils or granite outcrops, often alongside T. diptera which can also be found in Gascoyne and the northern wheat-belt regions of WA. T. decumbens occurs only on the WA coast from Geraldton to Busselton.

Figure 1. Distribution of Tetragonia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tetragonia distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Fleshy, spinach-like leaves, either large, 5+ cm (T. tetragonoides) or small, 2-5 cm (all the rest).
  • Trailing, long stems, usually green or red in colour
  • Prominent papillae ("water drops") on the leaves, stems and seed pods
  • Four- (rarely, five-) petaled, yellow or pale yellow-green flowers at the leaf joints
  • Tough, four-cornered ('horned') green seed pods along the stems at the leaf joints
  • Red fruit (T. implexicoma only)
Tetragon leaves are probably its key identifying feature. They are typically a triangular, arrow-head shape. Some species, like warrigal greens (T. tetragonoides), can be large, from 3-15 cm in length. Other species like the bower spinach (T. implexicoma), T. eremaea and the West-Australian species are smaller, thinner and rounder in their leaf profile. Tetragon, especially warrigal greens (T. tetragonoides) and bower spinach (T. implexicoma), forms thick mats of foliage and stems where it grows.

Figure 2. Some very large, 10+ cm warrigal leaves (T. tetragonoides), the largest I have ever encountered. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022..
Tetragonia tetragonoides [leaves - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Smaller bower spinach leaves (T. implexicoma) are smaller, 2-4 cm, slightly rounder with more of an arrow-head shape. Great Ocean Road, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia implexicoma [leaves - Great Ocean Road, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 4. Foliage of T. eremaea, common in the saline inland regions of NSW, SA and WA. Atlas of Living Australia. © B. Corrigan, 2021.
Tetragonia eremaea [plant - ATLAS - B. Corrigan 2021].jpeg


Figure 5. Foliage of T. moorei, centre, with its fleshy, green leaves. Atlas of Living Australia. © J. Judy, 2020.
Tetragonia moorei [plant - ATLAS - J. Judy 2020].jpeg


Figure 6. Tiny leaves of T. diptera. There is very little information available about this plant, so perhaps it is best left alone. Atlas of Living Australia. G. Byrne, 2021.
Tetragonia diptera [plant - ATLAS - G. Byrne 2021].jpeg


Figure 7. The rounded foliage of west Australian T. decumbens. Atlas of Living Australia. © P. Crowcroft, 2022.
Tetragonia decumbens [plant - ATLAS - P. Crowcroft 2022].jpeg


All tetragon species exhibit papillae, which are a specialised type of swollen plant vesicle which contain water and salts. They look like permanent water droplets on the surface of the leaf, stem or seed pod. For some species, especially T. cristata and T. diptera (see figure 6 above and figure 10 below), the papillae may look like shards of salt or quartz. Papillae do not disappear readily when touched or rubbed gently. Papillae may increase or reduce in prominence depending on rainfall, with the generalisation that the more fresh water is available, the less prominent the papillae will be.

Figure 8. Papillae on the underside of a well-watered warrigal leaf (T. tetragonoides). Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonoides [papillae - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg


Figure 9. Papillae on the underside of bower spinach (T. implexicoma). Great Ocean Road, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia implexicoma [papillae - Great Ocean Road, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 10. The crystal-like papillae of the Western Australian T. cristata. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Davis, 2015.

Tetragonia cristata [plant - ATLAS - R. Davis 2015].jpeg


Stems are long and fleshy, typically green, but some species, like the bower spinach (T. implexicoma), can become brown and woody with age.

Figure 11. A thick mat of bower spinach (T. implexicoma) showing some new and old stems. Bower spinach often clambers over everything where it grows. Great Ocean Road, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia implexicoma [plants - Great Ocean Road, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Flowers appear along the stem near leaf joints. They are usually yellow, white or cream with four petals (rarely, five) and 4-7 anthers surrounding a single, central pistil (see also figures 7 and 10 above).

Figure 12. Rarer five-petaled flowers, stem and seed pod of a warrigal plant (T. tetragonoides). Note the papillae along the stem as well as the leaves and pods. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonoides [flowers - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg


Figure 13. Close-up of a four-petaled flower on a warrigal plant (T. tetragonoides). Note the glistening papillae along the stem. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonoides [flower - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg


Figure 14. A white-flowered variant of warrigal (T. tetragonoides). Narabeen Lagoon. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonides [white flowers] 20221105_135946 sml.jpg


Figure 15. Four-petalled flowers on bower spinach (T. implexicoma). Great Ocean Road, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia implexicoma [flowers - Great Ocean Road, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Flowers set into tough, green pods, with most species' pods exhibiting the distinctive four 'horns' and crystalline papillae (see also figures 4 and 5 above). The coastal bower spinach pods will turn red, toughening and turning woody as the pods develop the seeds inside.

Figure 16. Horned seed pods along the fleshy stem of a warrigal plant (T. tetragonoides). Make sure to remove these before cooking this plant. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonoides [seed pods - Syd Olym Pk] sml.jpg


Figure 17. Closeup showing the four horns of the seed pod. This feature is the meaning of the name 'Tetragonia' ('four-corners' in Greek). Narabeen Lagoon. © JPM, 2022.
Tetragonia tetragonides [pod] 20221105_135946 sml.jpg


Uses

All tetragons are edible as greens, although owing to their high levels of oxalic acid (just like spinach), they should be blanched and rinsed in cold water before consumption. They can be eaten fresh, sparingly, in salads, but excel as cooked greens in all manner of cuisines, from warrigal and ricotta pastries, to quiches, pies, soups, stews, stir fries, pickles and fermented greens. Any dish that would use spinach or silverbeet can be substituted with any Australian tetragon. We have cooked warrigal as a traditional Korean muchim, a steamed side-dish mixed with garlic and salted krill. Young, new leaves and stems are best, as older leaves can become bitter as they age.

Tetragon seed pods are extremely bitter and will leach a black, resinous substance when cooked that will stain whatever it touches. The pods and flowers are best removed and discarded prior to cooking or blanching the plant for consumption.

The soft flesh of the bower spinach (T. implexicoma) fruits are apparently edible, as long as they have not yet turned hard and woody.

Figure 18. Soft, red fruits of the bower spinach (T. implexicoma). I have not yet found these to try them. Atlas of Living Australia. © A. Melville, 2020.
Tetragonia implexicoma [bower spinach - fruit - ATLAS - A. Melville, 2020].jpeg


Warrigal greens have been extensively tested nutritionally. They have been shown to be extremely high in vitamin K; 100 grams (3.5 oz) of cooked leaves contains 278% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin K, 25% of manganese, 19% of vitamin C, and 18% for vitamin D6. Other elements like calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamin B2 are also present in smaller quantities less than 10% RDI.

The Maori are known to have boiled kōkihi (warrigal greens) with the tubers of coastal convolvulus (a type of beach sweet potato, Ipomoea pes-caprae) in order to reduce their innate bitterness; I suggest simply removing the seed pods to decrease it. Regular sweet potato would make an ideal substitute for the less edible convolvulus nowadays if this traditional Maori recipe is ever to see the light of day again. The coastal tribes of Australia apparently never made use of the plant, although the desert tribes apparently learned of its nutritious qualities during the colonial era.

Tetragonia propagate readily from seed, but the seeds germinate best by being pre-soaked for 10 hours prior to planting (simulating the rain-germination method they use in the wild).

So, why do we grow spinach in Australia when we already have our own perennial version?

Samphire/Glasswort (Part 19)

Sarcocornia quinqueflora [plants] sml.jpg

Native samphire in a mangrove tidal flat, Sydney Bicentennial Park. © JPM, 2022.

Salty, sweet and a little bit crunchy. That's the samphire way!

Names

Samphire is a reasonably well-known coastal and saline-loving plant hailing from the genuses Sarcocornia (S.) and Tecticornia (T.). While there are a number of native species and subspecies, only two are particularly prominent. S. quinqueflora is otherwise known as native samphire or beaded glasswort, while a larger inland species, T. indica, is also known as brown-headed samphire.

The common English samphire species, S. stricta, to which the Australian specimens are closely related, will not be covered here.

Habitat and Range

The two main species of native samphire occupy contrasting ranges similar to various species of tetragon (warrigal), covered previously. Because samphire is a halophyte (salt-tolerant), it can be found around the majority of the Australian coastline. Beaded glasswort, S. quinqueflora, is typically found south of the Tropic of Capricorn on all the eastern, southern and western coastlines. Look for it at the tidal waterline in mangroves, on tidal rock ledges or rock pools, beach fronts and estuary regions. Brown-headed samphire, T. indica, is a typically larger plant found in saline inland regions, especially the Murray-Darling river basin, Lake Eyre and surrounds, parts of the Western Desert and WA's southern wheatbelt region, and the tropical coastline north of South-eastern Queensland, the Northern Territory, northern Western Australia, and much of the South Australian coastline.

Figure 1. Distribution of Sarcocornia (native samphire or beaded glasswort) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Sarcocornia distribution map.png


Figure 2. Distribution of Tecticornia (brown-headed samphire) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tecticornia distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Leafless!
  • Stubby and segmented pine-needle-like stems, coloured green, reddish or pinkish, usually 5-15 cm (up to 200 cm for brown-headed glasswort)
  • Tiny yellow or white flowers that appear upon rings around the top of the stems
  • Grow exclusively in salty environments: mangroves, salt flats, clay pans, beaches and estuaries.
  • Dead, dried-out stems may resemble dead or dried out Casurina or pine needles.
Samphire is a very simple plant. It has no leaves to describe and exists only as stubby, segmented stems, similar somewhat to fat pine needles. It is usually green, but some subspecies may tinge with red or pink.

Figure 3. Segmented stems of native samphire (S. quinqueflora) dangling from a sea cliff. The Grotto, VIC. © JPM, 2022.
Sarcocornia quinqueflora [plant - The Grotto, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 4. The pine-needle-like segmented stem of native samphire (S. quinqueflora). Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Sarcocornia quinqueflora [stem] sml.jpg


Figure 5. The segmented stems of brown-headed samphire, T. indica. Atlas of Living Australia. © G. Sinclair, 2022.
Tecticornia indica [Brown-headed samphire - look-alike - ATLAS - G. Sinclair 2022].jpeg


Samphire is a flowering plant. The flowers are miniscule, less than 1mm in size, and appear on rings at the tips of new growth which is slightly fatter than the main stems they branch from.

Figure 6. Pale yellow native samphire (S. quinqueflora) flowers. Note the 'rings' upon which the flowers emerge. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2018.
Sarcocornia quinqueflora [flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg 2018].jpeg


Figure 7. White flowers of brown-headed samphire (T. indica). Atlas of Living Australia. © G. & M. Goods, 2018.
Tecticornia indica [flowers - ATLAS - G & M. Goods, 2018].jpeg


Uses

Native samphire tastes like a salty version of asparagus, making it an ideal, if meagre, substitute for that vegetable. Traditionally it is pickled and served as garnish, hors d'oeuvre or vegetable side dish. They would probably cook well in stir fries, soups and stews to add texture and saltiness. Samphire also goes well with high-fat dishes such as grilled meat, oily fish (mackerel, salmon, etc) and creamy pasta dishes.

The woody cores of older stems can prove bothersome. New, young shoots have a more rubbery, chewable core which is less of an issue and should be preferred. Samphire has always been a last-resort survival food due to its low carbohydrate loads, although it does provide an important source of essential nutrient salts (sodium, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, iodine) and vitamin C in what can be otherwise inhospitable beach, desert salt-pan or clay-pan conditions where they tend to thrive.

With any luck, samphire will make a comeback as an interesting salty pickle for gourmet sandwiches and burgers. Or maybe I can keep dreaming!

Figure 8. Core inside a young, chewed native samphire stem. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Sarcocornia quinqueflora [core] sml.jpg

Sea Celery (Part 20)

Apium prostratum [Plants - The Grotto, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg

Sea celery, growing happily along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, since the Dreamtime. © JPM, 2022.

A fantastic, albeit under-utilised, native Australian herb. Sea celery is delicious!

Names

Sea celery hails from the genus Apium (A.), a close relative of commercial celery, carrot, parsley and parsnip. There are four common native species: A. prostratum is the most common of these, with its inland variant A. prostratum var. filiforme (A. filiforme from hereon) also easily found. A dwarf variety, A. annuum (incorrectly A. annum in T. Low's guide, p.28), is also common in the south. The rarer giant sea celery, A. insulare, rounds out the list of these native celery herbs.

A. graveolens is the botanical name given to commercial (Mediterranean) cultivars of common celery, which originated in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. There is also a New Zealand variant, A. australe (Maori celery), neither of which will be otherwise covered here.

Habitat and Range

Sea celery is largely a coastal herb, being easily found in open, sunny areas among the rocks, escarpments, sand, coastal dunes and low-land scrub on much of Australia's eastern, southern and south-western coastline. It is extremely common along the Great Ocean Road portion of Victoria into South Australia, the Tasmanian coastline and the Bass Straight islands. The inland variant, A. filiforme, can also be found inland along muddy creeks, riverbanks, swamps and watering holes, mostly in the south. It can be grown with ease in well-draining, sandy pots and containers.

Figure 1. Distribution of Apium (all species) across the continent. This map includes non-native, commercial cultivars. Atlas of Living Australia.
Apium distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Stubby, squat plant near the seaside, often growing in cracks, sand or cliffs.
  • Short, chunky stems resembling thick parsley
  • Glossy leaves, 3-5 cm long, splayed in leaflets of five (rarely, three) resembling parsley
  • Small, white, five-petaled flowers in an inflorescence of 10 to more than 50+ flowers appearing in summer (November through January)
  • Salty, herbaceous taste similar to parsley, with a bitter aftertaste
The squat, stubby and overall glossy profile of these small herbs is probably the most important identifying feature, although the inland and giant versions differ slightly. The leaves very much resemble parsley, but tend to be thicker and shiny. Flowers are tiny, similar to carrot or parsley, shooting up on stems 2-7 cm in length (30+cm for the giant sea celery) and branching out into multi-floral inflorescence of 10 to more than 50 flowers.

Figure 2. Sea celery, a glossy, squat parsley-like herb (A. prostratum) growing amidst a clump of dried grass. The Grotto, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.

Apium prostratum [Plant - The Grotto, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Closeup of the leaf (A. prostratum). The five leaflets are somewhat apparent here. The Grotto, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
Apium prostratum [Leaf - The Grotto, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 4. Flower inflorescence of 50 or more flowers on the common sea celery, A. prostratum. Atlas of Living Australia. © Anon., iNaturalist, 2020.
Apium prostratum [Flowers - ATLAS - iNaturalist, 2020].jpeg


Figure 5. The inland variant, A. filiforme, which has thinner, longer stems and flatter, duller leaves, much more like parsley. Flower inflorescence in this example is 20-30 flowers per stem. Atlas of Living Australia. © KPL, 2020.
Apium prostratum var. filiforme [Plant & flowers - ATLAS - KPL, 2020].jpeg


Figure 6. The dwarf variant, A. annuum. This species has much smaller inflorescences of 5-10 flowers per stem. Atlas of Living Australia. © B. Lingham, 2021.
Apium annuum [Plant - ATLAS - B. Lingham, 2021].jpeg


Figure 7. Giant sea celery, A. insulare, from the Bass Straight islands, especially Flinders and Lord Howe. Atlas of Living Australia. © J. Esling, 2020.
Apium insulare [Plant - Giant sea celery - ATLAS - J. Esling 2020].jpeg


Uses

Sea celery is a pungeant, flavourful herb in its own right. It has an intrinsic initial saltiness followed by a bitter aftertaste comparable to flat-leaf Italian parsley. As such, it makes an excellent native substitute for any recipe requiring parsley, such as tabouleh, pastas, soups, stocks and French cuisine. The stems of the giant sea celery, A. insulare, are substantial enough to substitute for celery in dishes such as soups, stocks and bolognaise sauce. Because giant sea celery is rare and limited only to the isolated islands of the Bass Straight and Lord Howe, it is difficult to acquire. It still has not found a niche native produce cultivator willing to exploit this hardy, sand-loving celery replacement since Tim Low made the recommendation in 1988 (p.28).

Give it a try; I guarantee if you love herbs you will be delighted by this salty, fragrant and flavourful native celery.

Look-alike

I found at least one look-alike growing abundantly alongside sea celery during my trek along the Great Ocean Road recently. Bidgee widgee, or burnet (Acaena anserinifolia) has leaves similar to sea celery, emerging mostly in ribbed, shiny leaflets of 7 along their fuzzy stems, rather than 3-5 leaflets of sea celery on smooth stems. The puff-ball inflorescences could also be confused with sea celery, although the two are distinctive enough to be discerned; sea celery flowers occur on their own stems, all branching out from a single point into a generally 'flat' or hemispherical plane, rather than a full ball shape like this plant. Bidgee widgee seeds also eagerly stick to clothing. This lookalike plant has extremely tough, dry, spiky leaves; sea celery leaves are thick, juicy and succulent by comparison and give off a distinct herbaceous odour when crushed. Bidgee widgee was used in colonial times as a substitute for bohea, a low-grade Chinese tea (Low, 1989: 33) and can still be used for this purpose.

Figure 8. Bidgee widgee or burnet (Acaena anserinifolia) could easily be confused as a sea celery look-alike growing in the same seaside range. Its dried leaves make a delightful tea substitute. Twelve Apostles, Victoria. © JPM, 2022.
[Look-alike - Twelve Apostles, VIC, 2022] sml.jpg

Pandanus (Part 21)

Pandanus spiralis [Draping Foliage - The Palmetum, Townsville, 2022] sml.jpg

Pandanus spiralis, Horseshoe Bay Beach, Bowen, Queensland. © JPM, 2022.

Names

Hailing from the genus Pandanus (P.), the 750-odd species of these plants have a myriad of names due to their overall tropical and subtropical global distribution and general importance and usefulness to human civilisation. Some English names are from south-east Asia; the common name pandan comes from Malay, where the plants are also prolific (especially P. amaryllifolius, origin of the 'Vanilla of Asia' pandan leaf). Other common names include screwpine, screw palm, wynnum (south-east Queensland) and the Hawai'ian hala (in New Zealand, Maori whara or hara) is also a fairly common name for the plant. Despite these names, pandanus are not related to either palms or pines, being instead a type of monocot (grass).

Specific to Australia, there are three prominent native species. P. spiralis is the most iconic and easily recognised as the screwpine; P. tectorius is equally prominent along much of Australia's eastern, tropical and sub-tropical coastline and probably best simply called native or coastal pandanus. A Top End variant, P. basedowii, is one of the more prominent plants in parts of Kakadu and the Kimberley. There are a few other less common Australian species such as P. gemmifer (pup pandanus), known for its abundant 'pup' shoots, P. aquaticus (water pandanus) and P. cookii, common in Cape York, amongst others such as P. forsteri and Christmas Island's P. christmatensis.

Habitat and Range

Pandanus is generally a littoral (coastal) plant, often found right at the beach front in prime, scenic positions. Pandanus spreads via floating fruit segments, making its way across entire oceans in this manner; seeds take up to 12 months or more to germinate i the segments. They also happily occupy rock outcrops, islands and coral atolls, and can make their way inland into river valleys, lakes and lagoons. Some places, like Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Madagascar, pandanus can be found up to elevations of 3,300m (10,000 ft) in tropical or sub-tropical rainforest settings. In many places where they occur, pandanus has been cultivated and expanded by humans for millennia, often by planting cuttings. Pandanus demands full sun; where full sun is lacking, the plant will actively warp and wend its way to find it! Pandanus cannot tolerate cold or frost, so it is mostly absent from the frost-prone interior and temperate coasts.

In Australia, the screwpine (P. spiralis) is found mostly in the Top End, from the Kimberleys, Kakadu, across the Gulf of Carpentaria and throughout Cape York and scattered down the north-eastern part of Queensland at least as far as Airlie Beach. The coastal pandanus (P. tectorius) occurs mostly on the eastern coast, from Cape York as far south as Port Macquarie and Taree. The Kakadu pandanus (P. basedowii) is found west of Arnhem Land in generally difficult to reach, crocodile-infested canyon and escarpment country. The other less common species are found dotted across the Top End, Gulf country and Cape York, with P. aquaticus particularly preferring to grow in wholly fresh-water environments.

Figure 1. Distribution of Pandanus (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Pandanus distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Ridged, scarred and/or knobbly trunk wood
  • Aerial stilt roots (may be absent in P. spiralis)
  • Multiple trunks/branches on older plants, 5-12 m tall, which themselves may exhibit aerial stilt roots
  • Foliage grows in a helix around the trunk
  • Foliage is generally long, 1-4 metres, and fibrous
  • Foliage has sharp, serrated edges
  • Green foliage has a white base when removed from the trunk which tastes sweet and fragrant, like sugarcane and vanilla
  • Dead foliage may drape from the trunk or branch like a palm
  • Fruits are large, 3-7 kg, and segmented into dozens of hard, knobbly pineapple-like pieces
  • Fruits are green unripe, turning yellow, orange or red when ripe
  • Ripe segments fall to the ground
  • Ripe segments have a soft, juicy base and hard, knobbly tip
  • Tropical, sweet-smelling juice can be squeezed out of the soft segment base with the fingers
  • Segments can be cut open to reveal slender, white seeds tasting like coconut
Pandanus are very distinctive plants where they occur, with older, established specimens looking somewhat like palms, especially if older leaves still adorn the trunk and have not been burned or blown away (see header image above). Unlike palms, however, pandanus may grow multiple trunks and branches.

Figure 2. Multiple trunks and branches on a coastal pandanus (P. tectorius), thus distinguishing it from any kind of palm tree. Alma Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus tectorius [Tree - Alma Bay, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Multiple trunks on a young P. gemmifer, amidst dozens of spawning 'pups'. The Palmetum, Townsville. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus gemmifer [Bush - The Palmetum, Townsville, 2022] sml.jpg


Trunks and branches often exhibit scarring from dropped leaves, similar to the way palms leave behind distinctive ribbed patterns. Main trunks will also form distinctive, sometimes pyramidal, aerial stilt roots at the base. These stilt roots may also form from low branches, an indicator that those branches may be lopped and planted as cuttings themselves.

Figure 4. Ribbed and knobbled trunk of an established coastal pandanus (P. tectorius). Wikimedia Commons. © F. & K. Starr, 2004.
Pandanus tectorius [trunk - wikicommons - F & K. Starr, 2004].jpg


Figure 5. An example of stilt roots on a coastal pandanus (P. tectorius). Alma Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus tectorius [Stilt roots - Alma Bay, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 6. Stilt roots on P. forsteri. Note that some of the roots on this specimen emerge from the branches as well as the trunk. Atlas of Living Australia. © D.H. Fischer, 2009.
Pandanus forsteri [Stilt Roots - ATLAS - D.H. Fischer, 2009].jpeg


Leaves grow in a helix pattern around the trunk, a feature which is especially prominent for the screwpine (P. spiralis). Other species, like P. tectorius, may be too tall to observe this feature. Leaves are long, usually 1 to 4 metres, strappy and have sharp, saw-blade edges similar to pineapple. Leaves broken off the plant while green will also exhibit an edible white leaf base. Some species may exhibit a 'channel' in the centre of the leaf, running its whole length along the central vein.

Figure 7. The spiraling, helical foliage of the screwpine (P. spiralis) is very distinctive. Alma Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus spiralis [Foliage - Alma Bay, Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 8. Closeup of a screwpine leaf (P. spiralis), showing the sharp, saw-blade edge and channel. Alma Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus spiralis [Foliage closeup - Magnetic Is, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 9. The edible, white leaf base of P. christmatensis, the Christmas Island pandanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2012.
Pandanus christmatensis [Leaf base - ATLAS - M. Fagg 2012].jpeg


Pandanus are dioecious plants, meaning they have distinct male and female genders. Only female plants will develop fruit, which look like giant, knobbly pineapples with dozens of distinct segments. Fruit can take between 1-2 years to ripen, turning from green to a vibrant yellow, orange or red. Individual fruit segments will fall from the tree to the ground when they are fully ripe and will emit a pleasant, 'tropical' fruity scent.

Figure 10. Male flower on coastal pandanus (P. tectorius). Wikimedia Commons. © F. & K. Starr, 2021.
Pandanus tectorius [Male Flower - Wikicommons - F & K Starr, 2021].jpg


Figure 11. Female flower on P. montanus. I had great difficulty sourcing photography for female flowers. Wikimedia Commons. © Céréales Killer, 2006.
Pandanus montanus [Female flower - Wikimedia - Céréales Killer, 2006].jpg


Figure 12. Fruit of coastal pandanus (P. tectorius) demonstrating unripe and ripening specimens. Atlas of Living Australia. © Wingspanner, 2022.
Pandanus tectorius [Fruit - ATLAS - Wingspanner, 2022].jpeg


Figure 13. Orange-red fruit of P. gemmifer, the pup pandanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © Coenobiter, 2018.
Pandanus gemmifer [Plant & fruit - ATLAS - Coenobiter, 2018].jpeg


Figure 14. Very ripe fruit of P. cookii. This example has begun to drop its segments. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Cumming, 2022.
Pandanus cookii [Fruit - ATLAS - R. Cumming, 2022].jpeg


Figure 15. Individual segment from a coastal pandanus (P. tectorius). This segment had fermented in my bag for a few days before I brought it home, but it made the soft, juicy end (brown, left) very distinct from the hard, knobbly seed end (yellow, right). Acquired from Horseshoe Bay Beach, Bowen, Queensland. © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus spiralis [Fruit - Horseshoe Bay Beach, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


Uses

Pandanus ranks the second most important plant, behind coconut, for many island civilisations of the Indo-Pacific. As a food, pandanus may be harvested for its leaf or its fruit. While the Malay species, P. amaryllifolius, is properly referred to as the spice, pandan leaf, Australian species also have edible leaves but not quite packing the fragrant punch of the millennia-cultivated Malay species. Pandan leaf is the star of the Malaysian dish nasi lemak. Any pandanus leaf may be pulled from the plant and the white base chewed; it is fragrant and refreshing. Fresh leaves can be torn into strips and bundled together and thus used as the spice, pandan, to flavour drinks, soups, curries, cakes, jellies, icecream and steamed rice, although not quite as well as the Malay species already described. Pandan leaves are oddly high in iron, making them an important source of that nutrient for vegetarians.

Pandanus fruit will soften near the base (see figures 14 and 15 above) when fully ripe, especially in the days after falling from the tree. A sweet, tropical-scented juice can be squeezed or sucked directly from this fibrous part, although caution must be taken when consuming this raw (see below). Whole segments were traditionally flame roasted, which makes the tough fruit fibres brittle. Roasted fruit can thus be split apart with an axe or hacksaw (do not use a stone unless you have a few hours to waste) and the skinny, white seeds extracted and eaten. First Nations people of the Top End used a traditional iron tool made from metal traded from Indonesian pearl divers called a djin-garn-girra to prise the seeds from the tough, hard fibres they are so tightly nestled inside. Other traditional tools for this purpose were made of bone, hardwood or stingray tail spines. Nowadays a vice and a metal hacksaw gets the seeds out in less than 5 minutes. The process needs to be repeated to extract all the seeds. The seeds taste like a mild version of coconut and the flavour is improved with roasting.

Figure 16. Pandanus segment halved by hacksaw, exposing the slender, white seeds in the hard portion (dark brown part). I originally attempted this with a super-sharp meat cleaver, which got stuck fast inside the hard part of the fruit on the first strike! © JPM, 2022.
Pandanus spiralis [Cut Fruit - Horseshoe Bay Beach, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


Pandanus has a myriad of other uses besides culinary ones. Its leaves are long and fibrous, making them excellent for all kinds of weaving: basketry, mats, hats, bags, skirts, roof thatch and even sails; pandanus leaf was the traditional material used for outrigger canoe sails by many traditional Pacific island mariners in their intrepid voyages. Aerial roots, often being straight, make good poles for construction of huts. The fragrant male flowers of the subcontinental species P. odorifer, common in the Bay of Bengal region, are used in some places as perfume, or distilled into the fragrant essential oil called kewra (or kewda/keora).

Figure 17. Phillipino 'bayong' basketry using pandanus leaves. Wikimedia Commons. © Alma Gamil, 2012.
Pandanus [Bayong basket - Flickr - Alma Gamil, 2012].jpg


Figure 18. A pandanus-fibre crab-claw sail of Solomon Islands design on a 'tepukei' outrigger canoe. Wikimedia Commons. © Bin im Garten, 2011.
Pandanus [Crab claw sail on a Tepukei outrigger - Wikipedia - Bin im Garten, 2011].jpeg


There are traditional medicinal uses for the plant in many cultures which I will not cover here.

Caution - Oxalates!

Tim Low (Wild Food Plants, pp.42-43) mentions the fruit juice of some Australian species, or indeed individual plants, being extremely irritable to the human palate when consumed raw. Some early European explorers who had suffered ill effects after eating raw pandanus juice marvelled that First Nation tribes, particularly in the Top End, were able to consume some fruit raw. While Low supposed, incorrectly, that human immunity may have been a reason for the difference, the truth rests in the fact that some species, or individual tree specimens, exhibit fruit and juice which is high in calcium oxalate (see Michael A. Arnold [2014], "Pandanus tectorius S. Parkinson" [Pdf LINK]). Consumed raw, juice from some plants will result in the explorers' experience of blisters on the lips and tongue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, while other pandanus plants in the same area lacking this toxin may be eaten raw with gusto.

I suspect that ages of tradition led individual tribes to identify pandanus plants in their local lands which exhibited low or no oxalates (not that they knew the chemistry), making them safe for raw consumption for those in the know. The Asian and African cultivars P. amaryllifolius and P. utilis are examples of generally low oxalate species, but this can vary from plant to plant. Generally, the larger the whole fruit, the lower the oxalate content; the smaller the whole fruit, the greater the risk of higher concentrations of this irritant.

Because we do not generally possess such streams of tradition to guide our choice of plants when out wild foraging, notwithstanding foraging alongside a local lorekeeper, it is recommended that any pandanus juice be extracted from ripe segments only after first cooking the segments by roasting or steaming. Heat treatment will break calcium oxalate bonds and render the poison inert and safe to eat. Virtually all pandanus seeds are safe to eat, raw or cooked, regardless of calcium oxalate levels in the fruit juice.

Lastly, the serrated edges of pandan leaves are very sharp, easily leaving deep 'paper' cuts in human skin. Harvest with care and wear gloves and long sleeves if necessary!

Candlenut (Part 22)

Aleurites moluccanus [Nuts - Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr, 2022] sml.jpg

Happy danglers. Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.

Probably more useful as candles than as food, at least in my experience!

Names

Candlenut trees hail from the genus Aleurites (A.), Australia being home to two notable species. Otherwise known as Indian walnut, carie nut and varnish tree, A. moluccanus is by far the most common of these. Older sources might still utilise the former nomenclature, A. moluccana (Willdenow, 1805) or Linnaeus's 1753 Jatropha moluccana. The other relatively common candlenut found in Australia is A. rockinghamensis. There is one A. fordii growing in the Anderson Gardens in Townsville and possibly others elsewhere.

Candlenut has many close relatives that grow across Asia and the Pacific including deciduous varieties from genus Vernicia which are common in China. These species will not be otherwise covered here, but note the caution on toxic look-alikes below.

Habitat and Range

Candlenuts are a tropical and subtropical tree by nature, preferring rich, moist soil in rain forests and gallery forests near the coast all across the Pacific. They are especially prolific in Indonesia, Timor, Malaysia, Philippines, India, China and the African east coast. Candlenuts were introduced to most Pacific islands by island-hopping seafarers in bygone millennia, and are an important ceremonial item in Hawaii. In Australia's northern Queensland, it can be found up to 800m in elevation. Candlenut is one of the first reoccupiers of cleared or broken ground, such as fire trails, agricultural land or cyclone-damaged areas. It grows extremely fast.

In Australia, candlenuts are mostly limited to the north Queensland coast, mostly between Mackay and Cape York, with some isolated pockets also growing in South-east Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Aleurites distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Streaky white-gray trunk/bark, often with splotches of algae, moss or lichen.
  • Leaves are large (15-30 cm) and can resemble white fig (Ficus virens) with prominent veins, or exhibit 3-5 lobes similar to maple, or be heart-shaped.
  • Leaves have two round glands near the upper side of the stem joint
  • Young leaves have fine, white hair resembling a dusting of flour or icing sugar
  • Five-petaled, white flowers occur in inflorescences of 30-50
  • Fruit resemble walnuts, often with visible segmentation lines
  • Fruit falls from the tree when ripe, dries out and turns brown or black
  • Fruit contains one insanely hard shell
  • Once cracked, the shell contains one white, oily kernel (up to 65% oil).
  • Kernels will burn readily, lasting about 15 minutes and providing candle-grade illumination
Look for stout, whitish trees with streaky bark, often with splotches of algae, moss or lichen on the trunk. Rain may cause the colour to shift to brown. Mature candlenut trees generally have a large profile, being 15-30 m in height. Their lateral branches droop down and hook back up again near the tips (see header image above). Immature trees are easier to identify from their foliage.

Figure 2. A good example of the whitish, streaky trunk bark of A. rockinghamensis covered in splotches of lichen. Atlas of Living Australia. © Tim, 2021.
Aleurites rockinghamensis [trunk - ATLAS - Tim, 2021].jpeg


Figure 3. Rain-soaked trunk of A. rockinghamensis. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Cumming, 2019.
Aleurites rockinghamensis [trunk - ATLAS - R. Cumming, 2019].jpeg


Figure 4. Moss-covered trunks of A. moluccanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2012.
Aleurites moluccanus [trunk - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2012].jpeg


Candlenut leaves can vary significantly, particularly between young and old trees. Look for the two bulbous glands at the leaf-stem joint for certain identification. New growth is often covered in a white 'dusting' of fine hairs resembling sprinkled flour; this also gives the trees a silver sheen in spring, another key feature. The leaves are prominently veined, usually with 3-7 lobes but some species can resemble white fig (Ficus virens), covered in part 16 of this series. Unlike white fig, candlenut leaves have a papery (rather than leathery) texture.

Figure 5. Mature candlenut leaves. This A. moluccanus tree did not exhibit lobes, making it resemble white fig (Ficus virens). Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [Leaf - Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 6. An example of the leaf glands, centre, on an A. rockinghamensis. Atlas of Living Australia. © S. Fitzgerald, 2022.
Aleurites rockinghamensis [leaf glands - ATLAS - S. Fitzgerald, 2022].jpeg


Figure 7. Young foliage exhibiting it's 'flour' dusting. Wikipedia. © Geographer, 2012.
Aleurites moluccana [young leaves - Wikipedia - Geographer, 2012].jpeg


Figure 8. Lobed young foliage of an A. moluccanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © B. Shevaun, 2020.
Aleurites moluccanus [young foliage - ATLAS - B. Shevaun, 2020].jpeg


Figure 9. Example of the slightly lobed but overall 'heart' shape of an A. moluccanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Chapman, 2007.
Aleurites molucannus [foliage - ATLAS - R. Chapman, 2007].jpeg


Figure 10. Example of the serrated, heart-shaped foliage of A. fordii. Atlas of Living Australia. © G. Cocks, 2013.
Aleurites fordii [foliage - ATLAS - G. Cocks, 2013].jpeg


Flowers are five-petaled, white with no prominent anthers or pistil. They emerge on a stem (inflorensence) of 30-80 at one time. After pollination, a few will set into round, green fruits that exhibit fine segmentation seams. Fruit take some months to mature. The outer exocarp will begin to split at the seams and drop the hard endocarp seed shells to the ground. These shells are thick and tough and are best roasted until they crack open, revealing the white kernel inside.

Figure 11. Flower buds on A. moluccanus. Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [Flower buds - Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 12. Open flowers on A. moluccanus. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2010.
Aleurites moluccanus [flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2010].jpeg


Figure 13. Open flowers on A. rockinghamensis. Atlas of Living Australia. © Paluma, 2015.
Aleurites rockinghamensis [flowers - ATLAS - Paluma, 2015].jpeg


Figure 14. Green nut on A. moluccanus. The segmentation seams are barely visible (one extends upwards from the tip of my thumb). Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [Nut - Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 15. Nuts on A. rockinghamenis, clearly showing the segmentation seams. © Paluma, 2022.
Aleurites rockinghamensis [nuts - ATLAS - Paluma, 2022].jpeg


Figure 16. Ripe nuts of A. moluccanus, bursting at the seams. Atlas of Living Australia. © K. Coleman, 2021.
Aleurites moluccanus [nuts - ATLAS - K. Coleman, 2021].jpeg


Figure 17. Dried whole fruit, exocarp still intact. Acquired from Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [dried fruit] 20221120_213750 sml.jpg


Figure 18. Endocarp shell after removing the dried exocarp. Acquired from Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [nut] 20221120_213854 sml.jpg


Figure 19. Kernel of a cracked shell, also conveniently demonstrating how thick the endocarp is. Oops! It's just cobwebs!! The developing kernel had been destroyed by some mould, or perhaps never fully developed because it was picked too early, straight from the tree. But I was only in Ayr on this day... oh well! Acquired from Sandy Corner Rest Stop, Ayr. © JPM, 2022.
Aleurites moluccanus [kernel - cobwebs!]20221120_214611 sml.jpg


Figure 20. Actual demonstration of the kernel. Atlas of Living Australia. © I. Mcmaster, 2010.
Aleurites moluccanus [kernel - ATLAS - I. Mcmaster, 2010].jpeg


Uses

Candlenut has been used as a source of food and seed oil for millennia all across the Pacific, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Philippines, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands. In its raw form it is toxic and should not be eaten; First Nation tribes of northern Queensland traditionally roasted the hard, inner shells on slow coals until they cracked, at which point they were cooled and eaten. Candlenuts are an excellent source of thiamine; Tim Low (Wild Food Plants, p.93) reports one Australian sample containing more than 4,000 μg (micrograms) of thiamine, a truly astounding amount.

Oil can be cold-pressed from the nuts and used in cooking, dressings and as fuel in oil lamps.

Figure 21. Candlenut kernels and cold-pressed oil. No affiliation. © laketoba.net, Indonesia.
Candlenut Oil  - Laketoba.net.jpg


In Hawaii and some other Pacific Islands, candlenut kernels were skewered onto sharpened palm fronds and burnt at important ceremonies. Each kernel can burn for approximately 10-15 minutes, and this became a measurement of time in many of these places.

Video: Candlenut candles. © Kelvin Surijan, 2015.



Caution!

Candlenut kernels are toxic raw. It should not be eaten unless it is first roasted to denature the poisonous substances. Sap from cut branches, stems or fruit can cause topical dermatitis.

Aleurites as a genus has many close relatives of the wider Euphorbiaceae family. Many of these look-alikes are toxic raw and cooked, but their seed oils can have useful medicinal properties. Some of these genera include: Croton, which is prolific in Australia, has otherwise poisonous seeds but excellent medicinal sap used for skin healing; various species of Mallotus which are also very common in Australia with inedible hairy nuts on long beads; and the round-leaved Omphalea, mostly found on Cape York, also highly toxic. Some of these species were formerly classified as Aleurites but further research has diversified them from true candlenuts. None of these look-alike species exhibit the dual leaf-stem glands, or young leaf 'flour'. Some of their other features, such as leaf shape, fruit shape and flowers, are similar.

Macadamia (Part 23)

Macadamia integrifolia [unripe nuts - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg

Smooth macadamias. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.

You northerners can keep your walnuts, almonds and pecans. Macadamia nuts are better anyway!

Names

Adored by the First Nation tribes of south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales as bauple, bopple, gyndl, jindilli and boombera for millennia prior, these highly sought-after morsels were botanically catalogued by German botanist Ferdinand von Mueller in 1857. He named them Macadamia (M.) after one of his chief financial sponsors, the Scottish-born chemist, teacher, politician and secretary of the failed Bourke & Wills expedition, John Macadam.

There are four native species. Two are poisonous and inedible: the Maroochy nut (M. ternifolia) and the recently (1991) classified Bulberin nut (M. jansenii). These two species will be covered in the caution below. The other two have become the backbone of the billion-dollar world-wide macadamia industry: the smooth macadamia (M. integrifolia) and the rough macadamia (M. tetraphylla). These latter two species have been cross-bred over the last century, particularly by the Americans in Hawaii, resulting in a myriad of interesting commercial cultivars.

Habitat and Range

Macadamias in the wild are a rain forest understorey tree, preferring rich, well-draining soils and annual rainfall of 1000-2000 mm. They struggle in cold climes dropping to less than 10°C, preferring temperatures of 25°C, but established trees can resist the odd light frost. In Australia they are most common in the Gympie-Fraser coast region, extending down the Great Dividing Range into northern and central New South Wales, having patchy distribution between Townsville and Cairns in north Queensland. They were first introduced to Hawaii in the 1880s to function as a wind break for sugar cane, but the Americans loved the nuts so much that breeding for commercialisation was well underway by the 1920s. Australian commercialisation did not commence until the 1960s, mostly utilising Hawaiian cultivars, and South Africa overtook Australia as the largest exporter of the nut in 2010. Macadamias may now be found in backyards across the country and internationally.

Figure 1. Distribution of Macadamia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Macadamia distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Medium to large sized trees, 3-15 metres in height
  • Leaves grow in 'whorls' at the branch tips, usually in groups of 3 or 4
  • Leaves are 8-25 cm long and can be smooth, wavy edged (M. integrifolia) or serrated (M. tetraphylla), or any combination of the two.
  • Flowers emerge any time of year (but mostly in June-August) on a long, slender stalk
  • Flowers are four-petaled and yellow-white
  • Flowers are highly attractive to bees
  • Fruits bud from the stalks in clusters of 1-12
  • Unripe fruit is green, often with a protruding 'nose'
  • Fruit may have smooth (M. integrifolia) or rough (M. tetraphylla) skin
  • Fruits drop from the tree when ripe and split open to reveal the brown, insanely hard inner shell
  • Shells must be cracked open with immense force to reveal the creamy, white kernel
Macadamias are handsome trees of medium to large size, standing 3 to 15 metres in height. The leaves all sprout from successive points near the end of the branch, being equally distanced from one another in a 'whorl' pattern. Leaves can be wavy and smooth-edged, or serrated, depending on the species.

Figure 2. Smooth macadamia (M. integrifolia) trees in a commercial orchard. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [trees - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Smooth macadamia (M. integrifolia) foliage 'whorls' in threes. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [foliage - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 4. Rough macadamia (M. tetraphylla) displaying its whorls of 3-4 leaves. Atlas of Living Australia. © G. Tasney, 2021.
Macadamia tetriphylla [Leaves - ATLAS - G. Tasney, 2021].jpeg


Flowers emerge from the branches on long stalks (racemes), each of which bears several scores of flowers at once. The flowers are sweet scented and highly attractive to bees, also producing an excellent quality, fragrant honey. Once pollinated, the fruits bud from these racemes and become the dangling dozens pictured in the header image at the top of this article. Fruit will begin to split when ripe, either falling from the tree completely, or releasing the hard, inner shell which falls to the ground. These inner shells require ~2,000 Nm of force to break open, one of the hardest plant substances known. Once cracked, however, they reveal their desirable, creamy, oily kernel which ought to be greedily devoured on the spot.

Figure 5. The long flower racemes of a smooth macadamia (M. integrifolia). Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2016.
Macadamia integrifolia [flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2016].jpeg


Figure 6. Flowers wilt and disappear after pollination, leaving behind long, white pistils and budding fruit. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [spent flowers - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Close-up of the budding, young fruits. I count approximately 13 on this stalk. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [budding fruit - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 8. Close-up of unripe nuts on a smooth macadamia. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [unripe nuts closeup - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 9. Mature fruit on a rough macadamia (M. tetraphylla). Notice the difference in texture of the fruit husk compared with figure 8 above. Smooth macadamias may split open in this same way when ripe. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, n.d.
Macadamia tetriphylla [Nut - ATLAS - M. Fagg, n.d.].jpeg


Figure 10. Closeup of the rock-hard, inner shell. This nut was left on the ground where I found it, since this was a commercial farm and pick-your-own was forbidden. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [whole kernel - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 11. One the cockatoos prepared earlier. This nut was left on the ground where I found it, since this was a commercial farm and pick-your-own was forbidden. Medowie, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [cut kernel - Medowie, NSW, 2022] sml.jpg


Uses

Macadamias are loved for their oily, creamy nut kernels the world over, even inducing the infamous Korean "nut rage" incident (see here).

Trees take 10-15 years to begin producing nuts, so keep that in mind before deciding to invest in this potentially profitable plant. Ripe macadamias will usually have split husks (outer shells) on the tree, the inner side of which will stain brown; any husk which has a white or sticky inner side is under-ripe (for pictures see Ohiwa Macadamias). Over time, the sugars in the kernel convert to oil, making them float (Ohiwa Macadamias).Thus, extracted kernels may be placed in a glass of water to test for ripeness.

Macadamias should never be stored in their outer husks as these husks are high in plant sugars which attract mould, potentially damaging the inner shell and kernel (Ohiwa Macadamias). Thus, husking should occur within 24 hours of harvest. Home gardeners should check for fallen or split nuts on the tree at least weekly, if not daily, and immediately de-husk any that are collected. Ohiwa Macadamias recommend a two-stage drying process to reduce the water content of the hard shells from 27% (fresh) to 4% to make cracking easier. Inner shells should first be left to dry in a shaded but breezy place (Ohiwa suspends onion bags full of macadamias) for 6-8 weeks. After this, they need to be dried further by exposure to hot (30 degrees C) and dry (less than 30% humidity) air. A home gardener could use a dehumidifier in a closed, warm room for a few days to achieve a similar effect. Rotate drying shells regularly to inhibit humidity buildup and mould growth.

Macadamia nuts may be eaten raw or roasted, salted or unsalted, they are absolutely delicious mixed with vanilla bean. They can be added to salads, cakes, pastries and desserts of all kinds, and blended into macadamia butter as a spread. Nuts can also be pressed for their nutritious oil.

Figure 12. 100% pure macadamia oil. We go to Medowie to stock up on this about twice per year. © JPM, 2022.
Macadamia integrifolia [oil] 20221126_150909 sml.jpg


According to Wikipedia, "raw macadamia nuts are 1% water, 14% carbohydrates, 76% fat, and 8% protein. 100 grams of raw macadamia nuts provides approximately 740 kilocalories, are a rich source of numerous essential nutrients, including thiamine (104% DI), vitamin B6 (21% DI), other B vitamins, manganese (195% DI), iron (28% DI), magnesium (37% DI) and phosphorus (27% DI). Compared with other common edible nuts, such as almonds and cashews, macadamias are high in total fat and relatively low in protein. They have a high amount of monounsaturated fats (59% of total content) and contain, as 17% of total fat, the monounsaturated fat, omega-7 palmitoleic acid."

They are a phenomenal, energy- and nutrient-dense food. No wonder they were highly esteemed by the First Nation tribes and a prized trade commodity, in those days and still today.

Caution!

As covered above, two of the true macadamias (the Maroochy nut, M. ternifolia, and the Bulberin nut, M. jansenii) are poisonous, containing bitter cyanogenic glycosides. Since these species are uncommon, it is unlikely they will be encountered in the wild. They tend to have smaller foliage and fruits when compared with the edible cultivars. M. ternifolia also has pink flowers.

Figure 13. The poisonous Maroochy nut (M. ternifolia) foliage and flowers, not to be confused with the "Maroochy" cultivar of the smooth macadamia (M. integrifolia). © I. Mcmaster, 2020.
Macadamia ternifolia [pink flowers & foliage - ATLAS - I. McMaster, 2020].jpeg


Figure 14. The poisonous Bulberin nut (M. jansenii), limited to a two endangered stands of less than 100 wild trees, mostly near Miriam Vale near Gladstone. You are unlikely to encounter this species unless you are actively searching for it. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2008.
Macadamia jansenii [foliage & flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2008].jpeg


Look-alikes - Edible and Inedible

Australia is also home to dozens of similar trees of related genera which resemble macadamia. Hicksbeachia pinnatifolia, otherwise known as the bopple nut, is limited to small areas of SEQ and Cape York has red fruit with edible nuts inferior in flavour to macadamia; the little-studied Lasjia (L.) genus very much resembles macadamia, except for the thinner seed shells, and at least four species were eaten: L. whelanii and L. grandis were eaten by the Bama tribe of the Bellenden Ker rainforest region, L. claudiensis by the Umpila of the Iron Range, and L. hildebrandii by Sulawesi (Indonesian) islanders; Athertonia diversifolia, the Atherton oak, has blue-black fruit with an edible nut kernel, common in the Cairns/Atherton region; Catalepidia heyana, Hey's nut, has a red fruit and a black shell but is inedible; lastly is Floydia praealta, the ball nut, a vulnerable tree of northern NSW, has similar foliage and flowers but brown-husked, inedible nuts rather than the green nuts of true macadamias.

I may cover some of these in detail in later articles of this series, but owing to the fact they are not terribly common plants, their priority is low.

Kangaroo Apples (Part 24)

Solanum aviculare [ripe fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230102_150100 sml.jpg

"[They are] not eaten by kangaroos, and taste nothing like apples." (Low, 1991: 68). Rainforest kangaroo apples, Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens, Camden. © JPM, 2022

Names

Hailing from the ever-popular Solanum (S.) genus, there are four notable species of these eastern forest and mountain plants: the rainforest kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare); the common kangaroo apple or poroporo in Maori (S. laciniatum); the endangered mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium); and the green kangaroo apple or gunyang (S. vescum). The common name kangaroo apple apparently comes from the fact that the leaves of older, 2-lobed plants resembles the hind-leg paw-print of those marsupials.

Kangaroo apples have as their closest familiar relative the South American tamarillo (S. betaceam), which will not be otherwise covered further here.

Habitat and Range

These intrepid plants, akin to their smaller, black-berried cousins (S. nigrum and S. americanum), are often first colonisers of disturbed ground in forests, orchards and agricultural fields alike. They spring up eagerly after bushfires, logging or other land clearing activities. In the wild, they can be found in wet rainforests and wet sclerophyll bushland. They prefer rich, moist, fertile soil abundant in nitrogen and phosphorous, but can survive in some of the drier and nitrogen deficient woodlands of the east coast. They are common at altitude for much of the Great Dividing Range the from southern Queensland into New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. I have regularly found rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) on fire trail margins and 4WD tracks where they are often hacked down or poisoned as annoying weeds by ignorant councils and members of the public.

Figure 1. Distribution of the rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare). Atlas of Living Australia.
Solanum aviculare distribution map.png


Figure 2. Distribution of the common kangaroo apple (S. laciniatum). Atlas of Living Australia.
Solanum laciniatum distribution map.png


Figure 3. Distribution of the mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium). Atlas of Living Australia.
Solanum linearifolium distribution map.png


Figure 4. Distribution of the green kangaroo apple (S. vescum). Atlas of Living Australia.
Solanum vescum distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Usually a small tree or shrub 1.5 to 3 metres in height
  • Leaves are long, 20-40cm, and typically have 2, 4 or 6 lobes, especially while plants are young (S. linearifolium lacks lobes completely)
  • Leaves on older plants become lance-tipped and have 0 lobes, but both leaf features may be present on the same plant
  • Flower buds sprout on trusses 10-20 cm long
  • Flowers are light blue or white to deep violet with prominent yellow stamens in the centre
  • Flowers are vibration pollinated (wind or bees) and set into green, egg-shaped unripe fruit
  • Fruit ripen in midsummer (usually late January), becoming dark orange-red (S. aviculare) or yellow/streaky yellow (S. laciniatum, S. linearifolium, S. vescum).
  • Fruit contain dozens of tiny pale seeds
Kangaroo apples are fairly distinctive woodland shrubs. Most of these plants, particularly the rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare & S. laciniatum), have distinctive lobed foliage when young, which is a good sign that fruiting adult plants may also be in the vicinity. Young plants and branches also have dark brownish-black stems. Mature plants are much taller, often exceeding 2.5 metres, with knobbly, paler trunks. The endangered mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium) has very thin leaves, entirely lacking lobes. The green kangaroo apple (S. vescum) has crinkly-textured foliage, but can be lobed or straight.

Figure 5. A young rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare), displaying dark stem and distinctive 6-lobed leaves. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [young plant] 20221211_142407 sml.jpg


Figure 6. Close-up of a 6-lobed S. aviculare leaf punctuated with slug damage and hand for size comparison. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [leaf] 20221120_154730 sml.jpg


Figure 7. An older and taller rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) displaying 2-lobed foliage. This plant stood at about 3 metres. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [foliage] 20221211_141115 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Close-up of another specimen (S. aviculare) in the same region with no lobes. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.

Solanum aviculare [foliage] 20221211_140948 sml.jpg


Figure 9. Kangaroo apple foliage (S. laciniatum). Some of the leaves are 2-lobed; many lack lobes. Atlas of Living Australia. © Anonymous, 2022.
Solanum laciniatum [foliage variation - ATLAS - Anon., 2022].jpeg


Figure 10. The mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium, foreground) has long, thin leaves. Atlas of Living Australia. © Anonymous, 2022.
Solanum linearifolium [plant - ATLAS - Anon., 2022].jpeg


Figure 11. Green kangaroo apple (S. vescum) displaying crinkled, 4-lobed foliage. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Campbell, 2020.
Solanum vescum [plant - ATLAS - M. Campbell, 2020].jpeg


Figure 12. Closeup of the dark stem of a young rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) plant. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [stem] 20221211_140727 sml.jpg


Figure 13. Closeup of the gnarly trunk of an older rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) plant. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [trunk] 20221211_141022 sml.jpg


In mid-late December, plants begin flowering on long, emerging trusses similar to eggplant/aubergine (S. melongena), with whom they are related. Flowers are much like aubergine, being star-shaped with five distinguishable petals and 5 yellow stamens in the core, tightly encasing a single white pistil. Flowers are not always of help to distinguish the different species, but S. aviculare and S. vescum will tend to have light to moderate purple blossoms; S. laciniatum and S. linearifolium will have deep violet (rarely, white) flowers.

Figure 14. Flowers and unopened buds on a rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare). Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [flower & buds] 20221120_154758 sml.jpg


Figure 15. Closeup of rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) flower. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [flower] 20221211_141048 sml.jpg


Figure 16. The deep violet flowers of the common kangaroo apple (S. laciniatum) stands in stark contrast with their yellow anthers. Atlas of Living Australia. © C. Gordes, 2014.
Solanum laciniatum [flowers - ATLAS - C. Gordes, 2014].jpeg


Figure 17. Flowers and ripe fruit on a mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium). Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, n.d.
Solanum linearifolium [fruit & flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, n.d.].jpeg


Figure 18. Example of a white-flowered mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium). Atlas of Living Australia. © Loz, 2021.
Solanum linearifolium [plant & white flowers - ATLAS - Loz, 2021].jpeg


Figure 19. Purple flowers contrast the crinkly foliage of the green kangaroo apple (S. vescum). Atlas of Living Australia. © H. Krajewsky, 2020.
Solanum vescum [foliage & flowers - ATLAS - H. Krajewsky, 2020].jpeg


The flowers usually self-pollinate with help by native bees and set quickly into unripe, green, egg-shaped fruits. The fruits of S. aviculare ripen to a deep orange; S. laciniatum ripens to varying shades of yellow; S. linearifolium and S. vescum may also have reddish or greenish streaks on the fruit skin, respectively. All species signify their fruits' ripeness by splitting or bursting. It can thus be difficult to find fruit at optimum ripeness.

Figure 20. Unripe, green, egg-shaped fruit of the rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare). Fruits are at their most poisonous in this state. Blue Gum Walking Track, Hornsby. © JPM, 2022.
Solanum aviculare [fruits] 20221120_155112 sml.jpg


Figure 21. Ripening fruits of rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare). Note the contrasting dark stems. Mt. Annan Botanical Garden, Camden. © JPM, 2023.
Solanum aviculare [ripe fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230102_150144 sml.jpg


Figure 22. Fully ripe, bursting fruit of rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare). Mt. Annan Botanical Garden, Camden. © JPM, 2023.
Solanum aviculare [bursting fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230102_150233 sml.jpg


Figure 23. Ripe and bursting yellow fruit of the common kangaroo apple (S. laciniatum). Atlas of Living Australia. © Demonrowe, 2022.
Solanum laciniatum [fruit - ATLAS - Demonrowe, 2022].jpeg


Figure 24. The ripe, streaky reddish-yellow fruit of the rarer mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium). Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, n.d.
Solanum linearifolium [fruit - ATLAS - M. Fagg, n.d.].jpeg


Figure 25. Ripening, streaky green-yellow fruit of the green kangaroo apple (S. vescum). Atlas of Living Australia. © N. Haigh, 2021.
Solanum vescum [fruit - ATLAS - N. Haigh, 2021].jpeg


Culinary Uses

Kangaroo apples were once a staple fruit of many First Nations tribes living in on the east coast, particularly in southern parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania (Maiden, 1889: 57-58). The Gunai tribe of Victoria's Gippsland region were known to deliberately burn forested areas where green kangaroo apple (C. vescum) was prolific in order to provoke its regrowth and lengthen fruiting season (Gott, 2008: 219).

Flowering and fruiting typically occurs in midsummer, from early December into March, but only bursting fruit are fully ripe. Samples of S. aviculare I have tasted resembled bittersweet mandarin in flavour, indicative of their alkaloid content (see Caution below). Low (1991: 68) recommends moderate consumption of the orange-fruited S. aviculare due to its high content of those toxins. Maiden (1889: 58) seemed to have far more enthusiasm for unhindered consumption of bursting fruit, noting that unripe fruit has a tendency to taste acrid; the warning is not repeated by Low for the other species (S. laciniatum, S. linearifolium & S. vescum; see Low, 1991: 133), indicating that these may be eaten with relative impunity. Fruit may be eaten raw, or cooked by boiling or roasting. They might make an interesting native salsa if tomatoes were replaced with these strange fruits, although the hundreds of gritty seeds inside detracts.

I should note that the mountain kangaroo apple (S. linearifolium) is classified as endangered in some states, especially Victoria. This species should not be damaged if found in the wild and, if possible, any harvested seeds discarded in the region of harvest to promote regrowth of this increasingly rare plant.

Figure 26. What to expect inside a rainforest kangaroo apple (S. aviculare) - lots of gritty seeds! The flavour was strangely addictive. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens, Camden. © JPM, 2023.
Solanum aviculare [ripe & cut fruit - Mt. Annan] 20230102_150435 sml.jpg


Medicinal Uses

Unripe, green fruit and leaves of S. linearifolium has been tested to contain significant quantities of the alkaloids solasodine and solamargine (Lim, 2013 VI: 337). Generally this species has been little researched for its biomedicinal properties, but they should be similar to other Solanaceae-family plants, like blackberry nightshade, which also have varying quantities of these phytochemicals. Some studies cited by Lim (2013: 337) discuss the anticancer properties of solasodine glycoside in the cream Zycure (Curaderm), which showed effectiveness in alleviating skin cancer. However, Lim may have misidentified his intended species (S. linearifolium) with Apple of Sodom (S. linnaeanum; see Williams, 2013 IV: 472-478) which has a similar name and anticancer properties. A primitive version might be as simple as crushing green fruit or leaves and applying it as a topical poultice to skin cancers, although the commercial creams have solasodine glycoalkaloid concentrations at a mere 0.005% (Williams, 2013 IV: 476), thus some measure of dilution ought to be followed.

Rainforest and common kangaroo apples (S. aviculare and S. laciniatum) have been commercially farmed in several eastern European countries since the early 1970s, notably Russia and Hungary, as a commercial source of these same glycoalkaloids (solasodine, solamargine, solanidine, etc) for the production of steroidal contraceptive drugs and cortisone (Williams, 2013 IV: 452-454). These plants have considerable quantities of these alkaloids: S. aviculare contains 0.3-3.1% dry weight solasodine in the leaf and 1.7-3.5% dry weight in the unripe fruit (0.8-1.7% in ripe fruit); S. laciniatum has 1% dry weight solasodine in the leaves, 0.3-3.5% in unripe fruit and 0.1-0.7% in ripe fruit (Williams, 2013 IV: 456). The common kangaroo apple similarly found use in traditional Maori medicine as a poultice for many kinds of skin disorders - itches, scabies, ulcers, boils and sores; little is known about Australian First Nation medicinal uses for the plants (Williams 2013 IV: 457).

Other Uses

A quirky and underappreciated application of these native shrubs is as graft stock for creating the famous eggplant tree or tomato tree (Eliades, 2010). Branches or stems from eggplant or tomato plants can be grafted whole onto these robust Aussie Solanum species for a hardy, fruiting eggplant or tomato shrub that will last for a few years. Pruning of rootstock shoots is all the maintenance required to keep a grafted eggplant or tomato on a S. aviculare rootstock happy and healthy.

Look-alikes

Due to the general size of the plants (2+ metres) and their distinctive foliage and fruits, there are few look-alikes. It is possible that non-native tamarillos (S. betaceam) could be confused for native kangaroo apples where grown commercially in Australia, but tamarillo leaves are much broader and lack lobes; its flowers are almost always white and angular, like blackberry nightshade flowers. Other native Solanaceae-family plants, namely the bush tomatoes, have very similar fluffy purple flowers but are typically thorny shrubs with velvety foliage and they prefer to grow in arid areas, not in wet forests like the kangaroo apples.

Caution: Toxic Alkaloids!

As covered above under the Medicinal Uses section above, all of these plants contain appreciable levels of various glycoalkaloids, ranging from 0.1 to 3.5% dry weight in the ripe fruit, which are toxic when consumed in high doses. The human palate can taste these poisons at 140 mg/kg as a bitter sensation and toxic doses are listed as 200-1,000 mg/kg; symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, sweats and narcotic (painkilling) sensations such as numbness (Ojiwo, 2013: 11). Common kangaroo apple (S. laciniatum) and green kangaroo apple (S. vescum) have appreciably less toxins (0.1-0.7% dry weight solasodine in ripe fruit) and can be eaten with more hearty gusto.

References and Further Reading

Atlas of Living Australia, "Solanum aviculare." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Solanum laciniatum." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Solanum linearifolium." [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Solanum vescum." [LINK]
Eliades, Angelo (2010), "How to Graft Eggplant onto Devil Plant." Deep Green Permaculture [LINK]
Gott, Beth (2008), “Indigenous use of plants in south-eastern Australia.” Telopea 12(2): 215-226 [Pdf download LINK]
Lim (2013), "Solanum linearifolium." Edible Plants Vol. VI, pp. 336-338.
Low (1989), Bush Tucker, pp. 41.
Low (1991), Wild Food, pp. 68 & 133.
Maiden (1889), Useful Native Plants, pp. 57-58.
Ojiewo et al. (2013), "Exploiting the Genetic Diversity of Vegetable African Nightshades," Bioremediation, Biodiversity and Bioavailabilty 7(1): 6-13 [Pdf download LINK]
Williams (2013), Medicinal Plants, Vol. IV, pp. 450-490.

Kurrajong (Part 25)

Brachychiton acerifolius [Flowers - Chiswick] 20221129_134836.jpg

Illawarra flame tree in full summer splendour! Chiswick. © JPM, 2023.

Ah, the kurrajong! One of Australia's internationally acclaimed, and strange, ornamentals is also top bush tucker!

Names

There are 30 species of these iconic Australian trees (one species exists in Papua New Guinea), hailing from the genus Brachychiton (B.), so-named for the hairy 'short tunic' coating each seed. The English word 'kurrajong' derives from the Sydney-region's Dharug language garrajung, meaning fishing line (tree), although there are as many native names for the tree as there are tribes. In older literature the trees are named under their previous classification, Sterculia, before the botanists decided to separate Brachychiton completely from that much larger genus of stubby trees (Guymer, 1988).

Of our 30-odd native species, twelve are common and easily encountered upon the majority of the Australian continent: the Illawarra flame tree (B. acerifolius); the common kurrajong (B. populneus); the brush kurrajong or lacebark tree (B. discolor); the northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius); the desert kurrajong (B. gregorii); red-flowered kurrajong (B. paradoxus); large-leaved kurrajong (B. megaphyllus); the Kimberley kurrajong (B. viridiflorus); the sticky kurrajong (B. viscidulus); Fitzgerald's kurrajong (B. fitzgeraldianus); the little kurrajong (B. bidwillii); and, the most iconic of all, Queensland's broad- and thin-leaved bottle trees (B. australis and B. rupestris respectively).

Some rarer kurrajong species are threatened or endangered, such as B. tridentatus, B. tuberculatus and B. incanus in the Kimberley region of WA; B. obtusilobus in the Exmouth region of WA; and B. velutinosus, B. garrawayae, B. compactus and B. vitifolius in the Cape York region of northern Queensland. Foragers should be wary of harvesting from or interfering with these rare species in these parts of the country.

Habitat and Range

Kurrajongs occupy diverse habitats and ranges, being very capable survivors in both wet and dry, tropical, subtropical and temperate climes alike. Despite Australia's expansive colonial clearing campaigns to make way for grassland pasture and cropland, kurrajongs and bottle trees were widely left alone and often dot Australia's farming regions with regularity, particularly in central Queensland. Young kurrajongs grow from a fat, water-storing taproot, thus they can take to virtually any soil type or condition, although most of them prefer full sun, open locations with little competition from surrounding trees. Kurrajongs of various species, particularly the flame tree (B. acerifolius), common kurrajong (B. populneus) and their hybrids, are widely used as ornamental street trees in Australian towns and internationally.

The common kurrajong (B. populneus) has the most expansive range, being found both east and west of the Great Dividing Range from Mackay on the central Queensland coast, inland to Roma and most of SE Queensland, along the eastern part of NSW, inland as far as Cobar and Griffith (this species can be found in the eastern 50% of NSW state), and well south into Dandenong country in Victoria. The common kurrajong can also be found in all Australian state capital cities and around the world as an ornamental street tree, particularly in the Mediterranean region of Europe and North Africa, South Africa, South America, and California, Arizona, Texas and other southern states of the USA (Nyerges, 2016).

The well-forested eastern coastline, mostly east of the Great Dividing Range, is home to the showy flame tree (B. acerifolius). This species is well adapted to rich soil, shade, altitude and rainfall. This species is also a very common street ornamental in Australian cities and around the world due to their spectacular show of flowers in midsummer; the tree will drop all, or most, of its foliage just prior to flowering, at which point the trees stand aflame with their stunning whole-crown fiery red floral display. They flower just after jacarandas do, usually in December-January.

The deciduous northern varieties (particularly B. diversifolius, B. paradoxus and B. megaphyllus) grow equally well in their bipartite wet-dry season regions, being found on a variety of terrain across Arnhem land in the NT and Cape York in far north QLD. The Kimberley region of northern WA is also very well represented, being home to the Kimberley kurrajong (B. viridiflorus), Fitzgerald's kurrajong (B. fitzgeraldianus), the sticky kurrajong (B. viscidulus), and many of the rarer, protected species mentioned above may also found in the northern parts of Australia.

The desert kurrajong (B. gregorii) is at home in arid central regions of Western Australia, as well as north of Geraldton on the WA coast, and in the south-western part of the Northern Territory, particularly from Alice Springs towards Irrunytju in the north-western corner of SA. One protected species, B. obtusilobus, grows exclusively in the peninsulas surrounding Exmouth on the WA coast.

Queensland's iconic bottle trees (B. australis and B. rupestris) are found in the central-eastern parts of that state, mostly on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, particularly the North Brigalow Belt region from Townsville south to Rockhampton and inland to Emerald and Roma, but can be found as isolated specimens as far north as Cooktown and as far south as Narrabri in northern NSW. The little kurrajong (B. bidwillii) is also found in the same region as Queensland's bottle trees, down into south-east QLD and Brisbane. Bottle trees make splendid, quirky ornamentals in botanic gardens in Australia and around the world.

Figure 1. Distribution of Brachychiton (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
1684903483336.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Tree grows up to 30 m (100 ft.) height, often in the 8-12 m (25-40 ft.) range, some northern and desert species only 3-7 m (10-23 ft.).
  • Tapered trunk which is thick at the base and thin at the top and tapered foliage crown ('pachycaul' shape; Queensland bottle trees in particular have an iconic, squat, fat trunk similar to a baobab).
  • Bark of younger trees usually smooth and green, with a distinct woody portion near the base.
  • Bark of older trees develops fissures and may exhibit green patches.
  • Large, broad leaves often 20-40 cm (9-15 in.) in length, usually with 3 or 5 lobes often giving them a "dino-foot" or "maple" shape; leaves of the same species may show significant variation (see images below).
  • Thin-leaf bottle tree (B. rupestris) has small, 5-10 cm (2-4 in.) thin or broad spear-tip shaped leaves with no lobes; common kurrajong (B. populneus) also often lacks lobes.
  • Northern and desert species are deciduous, losing all their leaves in the dry season (March - September).
  • Southern species are semi-deciduous (particularly B. populneus, B. dicolor and B. acerifolius), losing all or most of their leaves just prior to flowering in summer (October - January).
  • Flowers emerge on long, 30-50 cm (B. populneus, B. acerifolius, B. dicolor) or short (northern, desert and bottle trees) branched stems.
  • Flowers are bell-shaped (perianth), usually cream outside with red streaks inside (B. populneus, B. gregorii) or wholly red (especially B. acerifolius, B. paradoxus and B. megaphyllus); some are pinkish with red or white stripes (B. discolor; B. bidwillii; B. viscidulus; B. australis) or plain white (B. rupestris).
  • Flowers have 5 petals (rarely, four) which curl outwards from the main bell; petal tips may have fringed bristles (particularly B. rupestris).
  • Flowers are either male or female; both genders occur on the same tree (monoecious).
  • Bottle-tree (B. australis and B. rupestris) flowers are white and star-shaped with 5 petals.
  • Pollinated female flowers grow into long or squat, green or brown, canoe- or boat-shaped pods with a pointy tip.
  • Most species pods turn black (B. paradoxus, B. viridifolius, B. viscidulus are fuzzy brown) and split open when ripe, exposing the yellow seeds inside.
  • Pods filled with 4-20 yellow-coated seeds individually housed inside a hairy, papery exotesta (outer seed sheath).
  • The fine hairs of the exotesta are extremely irritating to skin, nose, mouth and eyes!
Kurrajongs are iconic, stately trees with distinctive, tapered trunks and crowns. The bottle trees in particular (B. australis and B. rupestris) have a bulbous, wine bottle-shaped appearance, often very similar to African or Australian baobab species. Their bark is usually green and smooth while trees are young, but will form fissured, fibrous lignin as they age past the 10 to 15 year mark, especially near the base. Species growing in Australia's tropical, subtropical and desert regions will be deciduous, losing all their leaves at the onset of the dry season (March-October). Southern species such as the common kurrajong (B. populneus) and flame tree (B. acerifolius) will dump some or all of their leaves just prior to flowering in the summer (November-January).

Figure 2. The overall profile of an Illawarra flame tree (B. acerifolius) in full flower. Chiswick, Sydney. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [Flowers - Chiswick] 20221129_134848 sml.jpg


Figure 3. The base of a flame tree (B acerifolius) is thick, with a fissured brown base which turns green up the trunk. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [trunk - Mt. Annan] 20230520_141415 sml.jpg


Figure 4. The trunk of an older flame tree (B. acerifolius) tapers to a thin point. Older trees lose the green tint in the bark. The Domain, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Brachychiton acerifolius [Trunk - Domain, Sydney] sml.jpg


Figure 5. The thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) has the most iconic trunk of all. Note the transition between brown, woody base and greener main trunk; this is a common feature of most kurrajongs and allows quick identification. This shape is the iconic 'pachycaul.' King's Park, Perth. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton rupestris [trunk - King's Park, Perth] 20230228_115420 sml.jpg


Figure 6. An aged broad-leaved bottle tree (B. australis). Older trees lose the green tinge in the main trunk bark. Atlas of Living Australia. © B. Mclennan, 2019.
Brachychiton australis [trunk - ATLAS - B. Mclennan, 2019].jpeg


Figure 7. Close-up of the lacebark tree's trunk bark. (B. discolor). Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton bicolor [trunk - Mt. Annan] 20230520_141752 sml.jpg


Kurrajong leaves are very variable, even among the same species. The most typical pattern is large, 20-40 cm (9-15 in.) long, five-lobed 'maple-leaf' shape (B. acerifolius, B. australis, B. gregorii, B. discolor; B. diversifolius; B. bidwillii), although the same species can easily exhibit 3-lobe 'dino-foot' shape leaves (particularly B. acerifolius and B. gregorii). The common kurrajong (B. populneus), thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris), and northern larged-leaved kurrajong (B. megaphyllus) regularly lack lobes on the leaves, but can exhibit them.

Figure 8. Typical foliage of the flame tree (B. acerifolius), showing 3-lobes ('dino-foot'). Hornsby. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [Leaf - Hornsby] 20221211_160157 sml.jpg


Figure 9. Variation in foliage for flame tree (B. acerifolius); this example is 5-lobed ('maple'). The Domain, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Brachychiton acerifolius [Leaf - Domain, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 10. The northern red-flowered kurrajong (B. paradoxus) has foliage similar to B. acerifolius above. King's Park, Perth. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton paradoxus [leaf - King's Park, Perth] 20230228_105329 sml.jpg


Figure 11. The foliage of the broad-leaf bottle tree (B. australis) very much resembles 5-lobed maple leaves. Atlas of Living Australia. © Coenobita, 2010.
Brachychiton australis [foliage - ATLAS - Coenobita, 2010].jpeg


Figure 12. The desert kurrajong (B. gregorii) has thin, 3- or 5-lobed leaves well adapted to its dry climate. Atlas of Living Australia. © N. Lambert, 2022.
Brachychiton gregorii [foliage -ATLAS - N. Lambert, 2022].jpeg


Figure 13. Typical foliage of the common kurrajong (B. populneus). Note that this species has no or barely obvious (usually 3) lobes. Atlas of Living Australia. © R. Richter, 2019.
Brachychiton populneus [foliage - ATLAS - R. Richter, 2019].jpeg


Figure 14. The thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) has the smallest foliage of all the kurrajongs, and is almost never lobed. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton rupestris [leaves - Mt. Annan] 20230114_174246 sml.jpg


Kurrajong trees have showy flowers, especially the Illawarra flame tree which will drop all of its leaves prior to becoming wholly red, covered in its bell-shaped flowers from late November through late January (see figure 2 above). Most of the deciduous northern species flower at the onset of the spring-summer wet season (October-December); their flowers can be red or pinkish with white or yellow streaks and splotches. Common kurrajong (B. populneus), northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius) and desert kurrajong (B. gregorii) have greenish yellow-cream flowers with red streaks and splotches. The thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) has red-white streaked flowers; broad-leaved bottle trees (B. australis) are white only. Flower colour and shape in combination with the leaves is often a good indicator of the individual species. All kurrajongs and bottle trees are monoecious, presenting separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Male flowers have a wad of pollen bearing anthers in the flower core, whereas female flowers have a protruding, star-shaped pistil.

Figure 15. The midsummer floral display of the flame tree (B. acerifolius) is spectacular and the reason they are ornamental street trees the world over. Chiswick, Sydney. © JPM 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [Flowers - Chiswick] 20221129_134903 sml.jpg


Figure 16. Close-up of a male flame tree (B. acerifolius) flower, also showing its yellow flecks. Newington. © JPM 2023.

Brachychiton acerifolius [Flower - Newington] 20221208_113150 sml.jpg


Figure 17. Male flowers of the brush kurrajong (B. discolor sub. 'Griffith Pink'). Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2012.
Brachychiton discolor [flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2012].jpeg


Figure 18. Female flowers of the red-flowered kurrajong (B. paradoxus). Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2007.
Brachychiton paradoxus [flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2007].jpeg


Figure 19. The large-leaved northern kurrajong also has beautiful red flowers that appear before the leaves at the onset of the wet season. Atlas of Living Australia. © A. Jonker, 2007.
Brachychiton megaphyllus [flowers - ATLAS - A. Jonker, 2007].jpeg


Figure 20. The common kurrajong (B. populneus) has greenish, yellow-cream flowers with red streaks and splotches. Atlas of Living Australia. © Jiggy, 2019.
Brachychiton populneus [flowers - ATLAS - Jiggy, 2019].jpeg


Figure 21. The northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius) has flowers like the common kurrajong above; they can be distinguished by their leaves. Atlas of Living Australia. © C. Pearce, 2019.
Brachychiton diversifolius [flowers - ATLAS - C. Pearce, 2019].jpeg


Figure 22. The desert kurrajong (B. gregorii) is similar, with greenish cream-white flowers. Atlas of Living Australia. © A. N. Schmidt-Lebuhn, 2010.
Brachychiton gregorii [flowers - ATLAS - A. N. Schmidt-Lebuhn, 2010].jpeg


Figure 23. The thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) flowers are white with red streaks and star-shaped. © A & N. Kapitany, n.d.
Brachychiton rupestris [flowers - ATLAS - A & M Kapitany, n.d.].jpeg


Figure 24. The broad-leaved bottle tree (B. australis) has white, star-shaped flowers. Atlas of Living Australia. © S. Dew, 2021.
Brachychiton australis [flowers - ATLAS - S. Dew, 2021].jpeg


Figure 25. A clear example of a female flower on a sticky kurrajong (B. viscidulus). See figure 16 above for a male flower. Atlas of Living Australia. © Liana, 2022.
Brachychiton viscidulus [female flower - ATLAS - Liana, 2022].jpeg


After pollination, female flowers grow into green, canoe- or boat-shaped pods (some northern species have fuzzy brown coatings on the pods). The stems of the pods turn yellow as ripening approaches; when fully ripe the pods dry out, turn black and split open to reveal their densely packed and well-protected payload of yellow seeds. Each seed is coated in a hairy exotesta (which is where the name Brachychiton comes from) covered in miniscule, irritating spikes. Some species can be as sharp and penetrating as glass; others are like prickly velvet. The overall shape and hairiness of the pods can be an indicator for individual species.

Figure 26. Unripe flame tree (B. acerifolius) pods are long, canoe-shaped, smooth and green, dangling in bunches of 1-5. Newington. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [unripe pods - Newington] 20230225_173707 sml.jpg


Figure 27. Ripe flame tree pods start turning yellow at the stem when ripe, blackening and splitting open to reveal their payload of well-protected seeds. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [ripe pod - Newington] 20230502_130646 sml.jpg


Figure 28. Common kurrajong (B. populneus) ripe pods displaying seeds (centre left). This species is one of the easier ones to harvest. Atlas of Living Australia. © Mike, 2017.
Brachychiton populneus [pods - ATLAS - Mike, 2017].jpeg


Figure 29. Old pods of a desert kurrajong (B. gregorii) are stubby and boat-shaped, having already discarded their precious cargo. Atlas of Living Australia. L. Fedec, 2021.
Brachychiton gregorii [pods - ATLAS - L. Fedec, 2021].jpeg


Figure 30. The thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) has small pods with a light payload. The irritating hairs (exotesta) are very evident. Atlas of Living Australia. © A. Kapitany, n.d.
Brachychiton rupestris [pod - ATLAS - A. Kapitany, n.d.] sml.jpeg


Figure 31. The red-flowered kurrajong (B. paradoxus) has velvety, brown pods with obnoxious exotesta seed coats; also home to a menagerie of arachnids! Several other northern species (e.g. B. viscidulus, B. viridifolius) also have furry brown pods like this. King's Park, Perth. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton paradoxus [seeds - King's Park, Perth] 20230228_105354 sml.jpg


Culinary Uses

A favourite of Australia's aboriginal tribes across the country for millennia, kurrajong seeds are an excellent source of nutrition and, once roasted appropriately, very tasty. Testing of B. populneus seeds yielded 18.1 g protein, 24.7 g fat and 14.6 g carbohydrates per 100 g; they are an excellent source of fibre at 33.5 g/ 100 g, as well as potassium, 567 mg/100 g, and the highest known native Australian food source of magnesium, 288 mg/100 g (Low, 1989: 220-221). A more recent study had lower mineral numbers for B. populneus seeds, with 200.9 mg potassium, 41 mg sodium, 170.5 mg calcium, 56.6 mg magnesium, 5 mg iron, 0.75 mg zinc and 1.4 mg manganese present per 100 g (Rjeibi et al., 2020: Table 1). Hiddins' testing of two northern species (B. paradoxum and B. australis) yielded much lower results of 0.8-1% fat and 4 to 5.88% protein, and negligible vitamin C (0.8 to 8 mg) (Hiddins, 2002a; 2002d); I suspect Hiddins' testing methodology was flawed as other phyochemists have reported in excess of 41% fat in kurrajong seeds (Dahwood et al., 2021).

Figure 32. A roasted flame tree pod (B. acerifolius), cracked open to display the seeds inside, with some hairy outer coats torn away. Yes, it looks like corn! © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [roasted pod - Newington] 20230506_170345 sml.jpg


One study noted that kurrajong seed oil (B. acerifolius) can contain cyclopropene fatty acids (specifically, sterculic acid and malvalic acid), up to 0.4% (Farag et al., 2014). Cyclopropene fatty acids, also present in cottonseed and baobab oil (malvalic acid), are generally toxic to humans in large concentrations. However, the concentration of 0.4% in the sample tested earned only a "might still present a health hazard" in Farag's estimation; Farag et al. recommended targeted breeding of kurrajong to reduce its cyclopropene fatty acid seed oil content. No mention has been made on the effect of roasting the seeds and its effectiveness in potentially denaturing cyclopropene fatty acids to render the seeds and seed oil suitable for human consumption. In any case, they have been roasted and eaten by Australia's First Nation tribes for millennia prior with seemingly minimal ill effect. The seeds of every species were eaten.

Figure 33. Close-up inside the contents of a kurrajong (flame tree, B. acerifolius) seed. Each seed has 4 visible layers - the hairy exotesta (not present), the yellow mesophyll, a woody brown exotegma, and the white endosperm (for cellular details see Guymer, 1988: 202). © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [roasted seed - Newington] 20230506_170605 sml.jpg


Kurrajong pods which have split open are best roasted on slow coals to incinerate the fine, irritating hairs, after which pods may be split open and the seeds extracted by rolling the contents in the hands. I still have not attempted coal-roasting but can affirm it is very likely the most superior method for preparing seeds for removal from the pods and human consumption. Seeds can be ground into an oily brown meal and added to breads, biscuits and pastries, but I prefer them as is, toasted and crunchy!

I have harvested approximately 2.3 kg of flame tree (B. acerifolius) pods (57 pods in total, approximately 41 grams per pod) as a trial for preparation methods; harvesting the pods took approximately 10 minutes and exhausted an estimated 15-20% of the pods on a single tree. Note that most pods will be well out of reach unless you bring a ladder, telescopic secaturs or skillful tree climber! After giving them all a good scrub to remove dust, spiders and gum, I roasted the 2,369 grams of pods in the oven at 180 C for 45 minutes. I then cracked each pod open with a pair of scissors and spent an excruciating 6 hours to extract a total of 380 grams of seeds from their irritating, hairy coatings with a pair of tweezers, a 16% w/w yield or 6.7 grams of seeds per pod. The extracted 380 grams of seeds were roasted a second time (approx. 20 minutes at 180 C) until the yellow coatings began to turn golden and the inner, brown seed shells became crispy. Concurrent with the persistent observation that "They look like corn," they also taste like roasted corn and peanut at the same time.

Figure 34. A bountiful harvest! This was approximately 15-20% of the pods from a single flame tree (B. acerifolius), weighing 2,369 grams. Sourced from Newington. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [pods - Newington - 2322 grams] 20230515_121727 sml.jpg


Figure 35. The end result of my hard work: 380 grams of precious treasure, or a 16% w/w yield from the pods. Sourced from Newington. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [seeds - Newington] 20230522_233242.jpg


Figure 36. Fresh pods have yellow-coated seeds (left); in old pods the seeds shrivel and turn white (right). Sourced from Newington. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [seeds - Newington] 20230507_123417 sml.jpg


Young kurrajong trees have bulbous, edible taproots much like large parsnips, usually much larger and thicker than the trunk of the young tree above. Virtually all of the common species, especially the common kurrajong (B. populneus), the northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius), and both species of bottle tree (B. australis and B. rupestris), were targeted for this use (Lim, 2015 IX: 17). During Australia's colonial period, Maiden (1920) noted that common kurrajongs (B. populneus) were well known:
as ‘Yam-tree,’ on account of the large yam- like root the tree possesses, at all events in the young state, which root is locally called yam, and it is stated that these were formerly much sought after by the aborigines for food. In the case of some small trees, less than 1 inch in diameter, which were dug up for planting, they had yams from 8 to 12 inches long, and 2 or 3 in diameter, weighing several pounds. A correspondent tells me they have been got 8 to 10 lb in weight, and are not despised by Europeans. The outside skin or bark of these yams can be easily removed, and looks like the skin of a radish. The inside is beautifully white, a little sweetish in taste, but otherwise rather insipid.
Kurrajong yams can be eaten raw or roasted; other species than those mentioned here can also be eaten after the removal of the stringy outer root bark but this was typically a famine food (Williams, 2010 I:142). I have not yet harvested a kurrajong yam because all the young trees in my area are ornamental council plantings.

Figure 37. A herbarium specimen of B. viridifolius showing the exceedingly fat taproots on this young plant. Atlas of Living Australia. © Centre for National Biodiversity Research, 1989.
Brachychiton viridifolius [tuber - ATLAS - Centre for National Biodiversity Research, 1989].jpeg


Figure 38. A herbarium specimen of broad-leaved bottle tree (B. australis) showing the exceedingly fat taproot on this young plant. Atlas of Living Australia. © Centre for National Biodiversity Research, 1988.
Brachychiton australis [tuber - ATLAS - Centre for National Biodiversity Research, 1988].jpeg


A clear, mucilaginous gum much resembling tragacanth (which is sourced from Astragalus legume species) can be extracted from all species of kurrajong (Williams, 2010 I: 142; Low, 1989: 187; Maiden, 1889: 59-61). I noted this clear jelly forming naturally from the sap which exuded from the baked, green pods I had harvested from a flame tree (B. acerifolius), the heat of the oven forcing the sap out of the cut end. I accidentally mixed the sap with water while washing the cooked pods a second time, and this became a clear lump of jelly that got stuck underneath my sink plug! I harvested this sap when I collected my second crop of pods a week later. I suspect it may be possible to flavour this kurrajong jelly by soaking it in flavourful substances like fruit juice, wine, coffee or various fragrant teas. The clear jelly can also be obtained by pouring boiling water over shavings of the whitish inner bark or young, woody shoots, particularly from B. rupestris (Maiden, 1889: 60 & 221).

Figure 39. The clear, jelly-like gum of all species of kurrajong can be eaten to alleviate thirst; it can absorb water and other liquids and swell considerably in size. Gum can be harvested from damaged branches, pods or inner wood shavings soaked in water. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton acerifolius [sap - Newington] 20230515_120243 sml.jpg


Young spring shoots of the thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) have been eaten to save many a lost explorer; the same may be done by chewing shavings of this species's soft, juicy inner bark.

Figure 40. Young spring shoots of the deciduous thin-leaved bottle tree (B. rupestris) are refreshing to chew upon. Mt. Annan Botanical Garden. © JPM, 2023.
Brachychiton rupestris [new growth - Mt. Annan] 20230114_174237 sml.jpg


Medicinal Uses

First nation tribes of the Top End have long utilised various kurrajongs medicinally. An infusion (tea) of northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius) leaves was used as a whole body wash for fevers, and the thick, jelly-like gum of the tree was applied to wounds, sores and ulcers to hasten healing and reduce inflammation (Lassak and McCarthy, 2011: 130). It is likely that other species of Brachychiton were utilised in a similar way elsewhere around Australia, but little written record of this remains.

Kurrajong species possesses a complex phytochemical profile with many potential medicinal properties that have, sadly, been little clinically studied; an excellent phytochemical and ethnobotanical overview of the Brachychiton (and closely related Sterculia) genus is available (Thabet et al. 2018a). Of the available studies, we find that common kurrajong (B. populneus) leaves and flowers have a wide range of phytochemical constituents useful mostly as free-radical antioxidant scavengers. Water extraction of dried, powdered B. populneus resulted in varying concentrations of alkaloids, flavonoids, phenols, terpenoids, triterpenoids, quinones, oils and resins, phlobatannins, vitamin C, proteins, glycosides, coumarins, saponins, antraquinones, betacyanins and sterols (Batool et al. 2019, esp. Table 1). Methanol extraction of B. populneus resulted, in addition to the above, varying concentrations of anthocyanins, steroids, and phytosteroids (Batool et al., 2019), although methanol extracts themselves are not suitable for internal herbal medicine use. Overall, various extracts and fractions of B. populneus show significant promise as powerful antioxidants, protect red blood cells (erthrocytes), inhibit brain cholinesterase enzyme activity (potentially useful for Alzheimers treatment) and have impressive anti-inflammatory effects (Rjeibi et al., 2020). A combined ethanol/water extract would likely contain the most active herbal compounds from kurrajong leaves and flowers in a form safe for human use, although precise dosages remain uncertain.

All parts of the flame tree (B. acerifolius) have been tested and shown to possess 56 different secondary metabolites of interest; flame tree leaves showed significant antioxidant effects far exceeding vitamin C. (Farag et al., 2014, esp. p. 121). Another study determined that the foliage of this species also has potent anti-hypoglycemic effects, which may be of interest for diabetes treatment (Zeid et al., 2017); dosages to achieve this effect in humans remains unknown and clinically untested. The showy red flowers of this species also have antibiotic properties (Williams, IV: 133).

The northern kurrajong (B. diversifolius) fared similarly, its leaves being a very potent source of antioxidants; however this species' branch wood extracts also has such potent antibiotic properties the researchers discussed its potential as an antimicrobial agent for agriculture and internal use (Abdel-Megeed, 2013).

Bottle trees (both B. rupestris and B. australis) have similar antioxidant properties in the leaves (Kassem et al. 2002; Thabet et al. 2017). Studies on the leaf mucilage of B. australis and B. rupestris show it has significant anti-diabetic effects (Kassem et al. 2002; Thabet et al. 2018c). Methanol leaf extracts from B. rupestris were shown to be effective against Gram-negative bacteria, as well as against Candida fungi; it is suspected the high levels of flavonoids in the leaves, especially quercetin, kaempferol, isorhamnetin and their glycosides, are responsible for much of this plant's medicinal properties. (Thabet et al. 2017). B. rupestris (and B. discolor) was also showed to exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties because of its phytochemical ability to reduce elastase production by neutrophils in the blood (Thabet et al. 2018b). Exact dosages for human use remains clinically untested.

Gum exudates from Brachychiton show promise as excipients for drug delivery, being capable natural hydrogels and thus suitable for use as stabilisers, emulsifiers and thickeners (Thabet et al., 2018a: 461-466, although this study concentrated mostly on genus Sterculia).

Other Uses

Kurrajongs and bottle trees are famed for their water storage in their roots. Aborigines burnt the top and trunk of the tree to drive water down into the roots. Then they would unearth lateral roots and cut 50 cm sections, standing them on end into a wallaby leather storage container. Litres of clean water can be obtained in this way, an important desert survival tip (Williams, 2010 I: 141-142). Excessive root harvest can easily kill the trees, however. Another method involved puncturing a root on one side of the tree, then putting a fire to a root on the other side (Nyerges, 2016). The heat of the fire drives the water to the cut root, causing it to gush copious quantities of potable water.

Kurrajongs and bottle trees have a fibrous, stringy inner bark which is suitable for fashioning fishing lines, nets and rope and was long used for this purpose (Turner, 1891: 11). The lacebark tree (B. discolor) was especially esteemed for its fibrous inner bark.

Leaves of all species of Brachychiton make excellent emergency stock fodder during drought periods (Turner, 1891: 11-12; Maiden 1889: 140). Colonial farmers would lop the branches off the tree, from which their cattle and sheep would gleefully feast, and the tree recovers amicably with new growth shortly thereafter.

The slippery yellow arils of the seeds can be used as a pigment for dye or painting, and a dye of uncertain colour (probably yellow) can be obtained from the seed pods themselves (Maiden, 1889: 300).

The high-fat seed oil of B. populneus has been experimented with as a source of biodiesel using novel nickel oxide catalysts made from Ficus elastica latex (Dahwood et al, 2021). If there was another Top End industry that could promote independence for our First Nation tribes, this would be one of them.

Caution!

The hairy seed coats (exotesta) are extremely irritating to skin, eyes, nose and mouth! Some species have very prominent glassy hairs that will stab into the skin as easily as shattered silicon shards, others are more like velvet and barely bothersome. Avoid direct contact with these irritants; burn the hairs off the pods with a naked flame or roast pods in warm coals before attempting to harvest seeds. Australian rural children are also well aware of the effects of suddenly stuffing several open pods down the back of someone's shirt.

References/Further Reading

Abdel-Megeed, Ahmed (2013). "Brachychiton diversifolius as a Source of Natural Products: Antibacterial and Antioxidant Evaluation of Extracts of Wood Branches." Journal of Pure and Applied Microbiology 7(3):1843-1850 [LINK]
Atlas of Living Australia, "Brachychiton acerifolius" [LINK]; "Brachychiton australis" [LINK]; "Brachychiton bidwillii" [LINK]; "Brachychiton discolor" [LINK]; "Brachychiton diversifolius" [LINK]; "Brachychiton fitzgeraldianus" [LINK]; "Brachychiton gregorii" [LINK]; "Brachychiton megaphyllus" [LINK]; "Brachychiton paradoxus" [LINK]; "Brachychiton populneus" [LINK]; "Brachychiton rupestris" [LINK]; "Brachychiton viridiflorus" [LINK]; "Brachychiton viscidulus" [LINK].
Batool, Riffat et al. (2019). "Estimation of phytochemical constituents and in vitro antioxidant potencies of Brachychiton populneus (Schott & Endl.) R.Br." BMC Chemistry 13(32) [LINK]
Dawood, Sumreen et al. (2021). "Synthesis of biodiesel from non-edible (Brachychiton populneus) oil in the presence of nickel oxide nanocatalyst: Parametric and optimisation studies." Chemosphere 278 (130469). [LINK]
Farag, Mohamed A. et al. (2014). "Metabolomic fingerprint classification of Brachychiton acerifolius organs via UPLC-qTOF-PDA-MS analysis and chemometrics." Natural Product Research 29(2): 116-124. [LINK]
Guymer, G. P. (1988). "A taxonomic revision of Brachychiton (Sterculiaceae)." Australian Systematic Botany 1(3): 199 - 323. [LINK]
Hansen & Horsfall (2019), Noongar Bush Tucker, pp. 130-131 ("Brachychiton gregorii").
Hiddins (2002a), "Big Leafed Kurrajong (Brachychiton australis)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002b), "Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002c), "Brachychiton (Brachychiton tuberculatus)." [LINK]
Hiddins (2002d), "Kurrajong (Brachychiton paradoxum)." [LINK]
Kassem, H. A. et al. (2002),"Phytochemical and Hypoglycemic Studies of the Leaves of Brachychiton australis (Schott & Endl.) A. Terrac. Grown in Egypt." Bull. Fac. Pharm. Cairo Univ. 40(2): 85-91. [LINK]
Lassak and McCarthy (2011), Australian Medicinal Plants, p. 130 (Brachychiton diversifolius).
Low (1991), Wild Food Plants, p. 183.
Low (1989), Bush Tucker, pp. 27 (B. populneus), 87 (B. gregorii and B. populneus), 92 (B. acerifolius), 187 (Brachychiton sap), 220-221 (nutritional information).
Maiden, Joseph. (1920), "Brachychiton populneum (No. 232)." The Forest Flora of New South Wales, Vol. 7, LXIII. Sydney: NSW Government Printer.
Maiden (1889), Useful Plants, pp. 59-61, 140, 219-221, 300.
Nyerges, Christopher (2016). "The Kurrajong Tree from Down Under." A Voice in the Wilderness [LINK].
Rjeibi, Ilhem et al. (2020). "Brachychiton populneus as a novel source of bioactive ingredients with therapeutic effects: antioxidant, enzyme inhibitory, anti‐inflammatory properties and LC–ESI‐MS profile." Inflammopharmacology 28:563-574. [LINK]
Thabet, Amany, et al. (2017). "Anti-infective Properties of Brachychiton rupestris and Brachychiton luridum Leaves and their Qualitative Phytochemical Screening." Medicinal and Aromatic Plants 6(4): 1000299. [LINK]
Thabet, Amany et al. (2018a). "Sterculia and Brachychiton: a comprehensive overview on their ethnopharmacology, biological activities, phytochemistry and the role of their gummy exudates in drug delivery." Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 70(4): 450-474. [LINK]
Thabet, Amany, et al. (2018b). "Study of the anti-allergic and anti- inflammatory activity of Brachychiton rupestris and Brachychiton discolor leaves (Malvaceae) using in vitro models." BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 18:299. [LINK]
Thabet, Amany, et al. (2018c). "Validation of the Antihyperglycaemic and Hepatoprotective Activity of the Flavonoid Rich Fraction of Brachychiton rupestris Using in Vivo experimental Models and Molecular Modelling." Food and Chemical Toxicology 114:302-310. [LINK]
Turner, F (1891). The Forage Plants of Australia. Sydney: G.S. Chapman.
Williams (2010, 2013), Medicinal Plants, Vol I pp. 141-142 and Vol IV. p. 133.
Zeid, Aisha H. A. et al. (2017), "Flavonoid chemical composition and antidiabetic potential of Brachychiton acerifolius leaves extract." Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 7(5): 389-396. [LINK]