Going bananas in the desert
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.”