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
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