South Australia‘s deserts, areas which have less than 250 mm of rain per year, still produce the most amazing fruits and food according to Joan Gibbs, lecturer in Ecology at the University Of South Australia Mawson Lakes. And planting these bush foods is helping to restore our damaged landscapes.
The desert banana has an interesting name given that it doesn’t taste like a banana or even look like one. It just happens to be curved!
Then there’s the wild fig (also known as pigface or Carpobrotus rossii) which, underneath it’s “bitter, salty rind”, actually tastes like strawberry. It’s a desert dessert delight, according to Joan.
Joan: “Bush tomato (Solanum spp.) has many species that can be used in conventional sauces and for eating. The most common tomato that is cultivated for business by many communities is Solanum centrale, which gives a farm-gate price of $35 per kilo, but requires specialist care and pruning in a horticultural farming system.
“The other big seller is quondong, Santalum acuminatum, which requires delicate care in planting out with its host plant, usually Acacia victoriae, an arid wattle shrub. In some soils, survival rates of young plants can be extremely low, and crops are not produced for four to six years, under irrigation.”
In the South East there is the bush fig, bush apple, wattleseed coffee and coastal currant.
Joan is passionate about restoring deserts and other landscapes damaged by grazing and agriculture. Since 1998 her Sustainable Environments Research Group “has investigated the potential for restoring cultural, Aboriginal landscapes on the Coorong, 200 km south-east of Adelaide”.
“We have planted over 4000 trees and bushfood plants to create habitat for wildlife in patterns that combine with culturally-appropriate landscapes.”
Joan says that Aboriginal people have used horticultural ecology with the desert plants for thousands of years.
“Aboriginal people cared for bushland which provided food, medicines and materials for livelihoods. Custodians of each region managed the bush according to laws and instructions passed on from previous custodians. Intricate systems of firing, cultivation and planting ensured continuous crops, albeit at a subsistence level.
“The challenge of current bushfood business for Aboriginal people is to research and develop production systems for their native bushfoods that will sustain livelihoods in the desert.
“The difficulty of achieving ecosystem restoration is many times greater than the ease with which they were destroyed. The methods of cultivating these bush plants are probably known to bush dwellers, requiring techniques very different to European-type farming.
“Bush horticulture would require the resources of current and traditional knowledge of caring for healthy landscapes if we were to produce enough food for wildlife, as well as humans.”
This is a rounded shrub to 2 metres high by 2 metres wide. It has dark green, shiny elliptical (like an ellipse) leaves to 7 cm long and cream flowers in summer. The fruits (berries) are almost black and the stems red. It sounds a most attractive plant to grow. As it is alpine, it would probably do best in a pot here, although Tasmannia species are adaptable according to my reasearch. A shade house would be a good place to try one of these plants.
The plants are frost hardy and prefer a well composted soil and half to full shade. Definitely won’t cope with the high pH soil in the garden. Sounds like a pot specimen to me. They are usually grown from cuttings, but it is worth trying seed.
All parts of the plant have a hot flavour. I think the leaves are quite mild, but the flavour is very good. I still haven’t tried the dried berries yet but they are bound to be much hotter in flavour.
Daughter gave me a packet of Native Pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata) leaves and berries to try. Haven’t tried the berries yet but the leaves give a tasty lift to savoury custard type dishes. I tried some in a tuna dish made with eggs and evaporated milk. I added a good pinch of the dried leaves which I crumbled over the top of the mixture and stirred lightly in, to moisten them. I could smell the scent of them and the flavour was good. There is a slight taste of ‘heat’ as you would expect with pepper but there is definitely another flavour there which I found very nice. Scrambled eggs could do with some of this.
Included in the package was also a jar of Santalum accuminatum Quandong (Wild Peach) jam. This had a slightly tangy taste and I think is like marmalade in that it is better on toast rather than bread. I noticed that the ingredients included orange concentrate. There would be a number of recipes around for jam. However I do prefer the fruit in a pie. I remember one Australian Plant Society Christmas ‘Do’ very well!. One of the members brought along a large Quandong Pie to share, complete wth a container of cream. Pure decadence and absolutely delightful.
The yummiest of the Australian native foods is the Quandong, or Wild Peach, fruit of Santalum acuminatum. These make great pies, served with cream, icecream or custard. As the fruit is quite tart, extra sugar is required but they are certainly a treat.
Years ago we had a tree when we were living in the north of South Australia. Being parasitic we were sure that its roots were attached to a very old grape vine which grew nearby. I remember many feasts when we could beat the birds to the fruit.
Friends in the mallee often had enough fruit from their tree to freeze it. Before Quandong Pie made its appearance in restaurants, Bev was supplying frozen fruit to a private concern in Adelaide. How they heard about the supply, I don’t know.
I was given a Sunshine Milk tin of dried fruit which had come from the upper north of the state. I thought that all my Christmases had come at once!
This a widespread large shrub or tree. It has small insignificant greenish flowers followed by large shiny red fruits. It grows widely in drier areas of the country. A host plant is needed when the plants are about twelve months old. Perennial grasses are often used.
It is not easy to propagate. Some say put the seed in a hessian bag with some peat and throw it behind the back shed and check it a few months later! Various methods are used. One that is supposed to work is to soak the kernal which has been removed from the hard shell, in a solution of household bleach for half an hour. Place the kernels in a plastic bag with moist wood shavings and keep cool and dark until germination takes place. Remove the sprouted kernels as soon as possible to individual pots.
This is a most useful plant which is native to South Australia and Victoria. It forms a dense, weed suppressing ground cover. From spring it has white fluffy looking flowers followed by edible berries which have a refreshing apple- like flavour.
It is a hardy plant which grows well in a variety of soils especially on alkaline soils. It also does well in exposed coastal positions and inland. It withstands dry periods and very high temperatures. Muntries responds well to pruning. A friend here takes a spade to the edges to confine the plant to the designated area.
The fruit was always a favourite with Aboriginal folk. Early settlers used the berries in pies. They also make a nice jelly along the lines of apple jelly. Recipes for apple jelly can be found in older cook books like the CWA Cookbook.
I remember a tale of woe from a friend who had been given a two litre container full of Muntries. She planned to make something nice from them after work. By the time she got home, the children had been home and found them. She was a very cross lady when I was told the story.