Wild foods have always been significant in Central Queensland. They formed the total sustenance of the Aboriginal people; they kept explorers alive, settlers healthy and the local kids happily occupied. Today, after a brief resurgence during the Depression and WWII, they are being "rediscovered" as the basis of a commercial industry, and there is renewed interest in them generally as part of our shared cultural heritage.
Our knowledge of the food plants of the Aborigines is sketchy, relying, as it does, mainly on early European accounts, and the oral traditions of the community as a whole, which includes Aboriginal, Islander and pioneer sources. Although some use of wild foods and medicines was maintained by the local Aboriginal people, much of the information relating to those from plants has been lost, as they were replaced by other items of overseas origin. Our sources include accounts from the Archer family's papers and oral histories, the explorer Leichhardt's journals, and the little booklet "Notes on some of the Roots, Tubers, Bulbs and Fruits, used as Vegetable Food by the Aboriginals of Northern Queensland, Australia" by French botanist Anthelme Thozet.
The establishment of the Dreamtime Cultural Centre and its surrounding gardens on Rockhampton's northern outskirts has continued to fuel the renaissance of interest in our wild food plants.
Contrary to popular belief, it is fairly difficult to be severely poisoned by eating plants, with a few notable exceptions. Most poisonous plants warn adventurous experimenters by their taste, and a few unpleasant moments are the worst one might experience. The dangerous plants are those which are both palatable and toxic such as cycad seeds and some fungi, or in which reaction is delayed, such as cunjevoi. Nevertheless, the prudent forager will approach a new and unknown plant cautiously, first rubbing what appears to be the edible part on the sensitive skin of the inner wrist or elbow. If, after a reasonable time lapse, there is no adverse reaction, it may be touched by the lips or tongue, or bitten, but not chewed or swallowed. If all seems well, a little may be chewed and swallowed. Then wait at least 24 hours to gauge the body's response before sampling larger quantities, or experimenting with preparation and cooking. Obviously, some good reference books reduce the number of times this procedure is necessary, and a short list of some of those available is included as an appendix.
Plant foods are generally available only seasonally, and the season for some is very limited. Availability is also governed by habitat, some ecosystems being richer, or offering more variety, than others. From the beaches to the dry interior, each niche has its own particular food products, and in this paper just a few typical examples from each are mentioned.
The leaves of many of the common succulent plants of the foreshores are edible, raw, cooked or pickled. These include samphire (Sarcocornia quinqueflora), seablite (Suaeda australis) and pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens). The fruits of pigface are also known as beach bananas because the flesh inside their thick reddish skin resembles a small salty banana in both taste and appearance.
The pandanus (Pandanus sp.) has other uses besides fixing the foredunes. The fruit segments may be roasted and the flesh sucked from the base, then split with a tomahawk or similar implement to extract the small oily seeds. The whitish leaf bases may be cooked as a vegetable, and the leaves themselves used for weaving and thatching. The leaves of octopus bush (Argusia argentea) and pisonia (Pisonia grandis), common on the offshore islands, may be eaten as either a salad green or a cooked vegetable. One of the chef's specialties at the Heron Island Resort is Pisonia Pie. The New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) became so popular in 19th century English gardens that it was also known as Botany Bay greens. It is now marketed commercially under the more up-market title of Warrigal Greens.
Where mud replaces sand, mangroves replace pandanus and octopus bush. Aborigines ate the "seeds" of the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina) after lengthy preparation. Boiled in several changes of water they taste rather like bitter olives.
The Darambal Aborigines of the Rockhampton area relied heavily on the surrounding lagoons as abundant sources of food. Waterlilies (Nymphaea gigantea) yield edible pods, seeds, celery-like stalks and tubers. The nutty seeds of pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) are also edible. Water ribbons (Triglochin procera) produce many sweet, crisp, small oval tubers like water chestnuts.
The unusual aquatic fern, nardoo (Marsilea drummondii), produces edible sporocarps. Almost every Australian knows that Burke and Wills "starved to death" on nardoo, but only recently have we learned exactly why. Both nardoo and mussels, the freshwater staples of the inland, contain an enzyme that destroys vitamin B1. By rejecting the Aboriginal methods of roasting the shellfish and wetgrinding and then baking the nardoo, which neutralises the toxic enzyme, the explorers eventually died of beri-beri. Evidence of the preparation of nardoo is widespread round Padygole (Gracemere), where many grindstones remain in situ on the Archer property.
Paperbarks (Melaleuca spp.) commonly grow round the edges of fresh water swamps. The papery bark may be removed in sheets, and has a myriad of uses, including preparing and wrapping food for baking. The flowers secrete copious quantities of nectar, which may be sucked directly, or extracted by soaking the blossoms in water to make a sweet drink.
Woodland and Forest
Fruits are the obvious plant foods of the bush as they are designed to be eaten, and those which taste best are often those targeted by fruit bats, whose palates seem much like humans. Examples of these include figs (Ficus spp.), Burdekin plums (Pleiogynium timorense) and creek lillipillies (Syzygium australe) which also make delicious jams, jellies and wines. Smaller fruits with less appealing flavours, such as red-jackets (Alectryon spp.) and geebungs (Persoonia spp.) are probably aimed at birds as their agents of seed dispersal.
Other fruits which may be eaten raw include those of the blue flax lily (Dianella caerulea), blue-tongue (Melastoma affine), raspberries (Rubus spp.) fruit salad vine (Melodorum leichhardtii), native mulberry (Pipturus argenteus), and the tiny aromatic fruits of maiden's blush (Euroschinus falcata). Cocky apples (Planchonia careya) are better roasted. Along the creeks and rivers, the tall Leichhardt tree (Nauclea orientalis) is conspicuous and, in season, is hung with grey fleshy fruits like decomposing golfballs with a rather bitter taste. The sticky pulp round the seeds of nipan, (Capparis lasiantha) is pleasant eating. The broad-leaved native cherry (Exocarpos latifolius) is not a fruit at all, botanically speaking, but a swollen stem which is delicious when fully ripe and beginning to wrinkle like a sultana.
Native ginger (Alpinia caerulea) not only bears edible fruits, but the young rhizomes may also be eaten, and taste faintly of ginger. Other edible roots are the long or pencil yam (Dioscorea transversa) which can be eaten raw or cooked, and the rhizomes of bracken fern, (Pteridium esculentum). The boiled shoots, called croziers or fiddles, are emergency foods, but should not be eaten in quantity due to the toxins they contain.
Young roots of candelabra or strap water (Acacia holosericea) are reported to have been cooked for food by the Aborigines, and the seeds were milled and made into damper. The bottle tree (Brachychiton australis) also has edible roots and seeds.
The large, matt black seeds of the peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifida) are delicious, the kernel tasting like a cross between a macadamia nut and a peanut.
The heart of Livistona decipiens can be eaten as palm cabbage, and the young shoots of scrambling lily (Geitonoplesium cymosum) like asparagus. The bases of mat rush leaves (Lomandra longifolia) taste like green peas, and the sour buds and leaves of Hibiscus heterophyllus have earned it the common names of native rosella and native sorrel. The flower petals and roots can also be eaten, the tough fibres made string, and mucilaginous decoctions treated colds and sore throats internally, and skin problems externally.
Inland, reduced rainfall results in a dramatic change in the landscape, but there is no shortage of food for those who know where to look.
Prickly plants produce wild currants (Carissa ovata) and desert limes (Eremocitrus glauca), and winter apples (or dibble-dibbles or amulla - Myoporum debile) may be found sprawling through the sparse grasses, or colonising disturbed land.
The seeds of native millet (Panicum decompositum) were a staple of the Aborigines of the interior, who ate them milled and baked into damper. Pigweed (Portulaca oleracea) not only provided tiny, oily, nutritious seeds, but a green vegetable, whose anti-scorbutic qualities were valued by the people of the west well into the 1950s. Early explorers also appreciated this property in the leaves of the ruby or barrier saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa), though it's the succulent sweet red fruits of this shrub which are eagerly sought.
Many of the flowers of the more arid lands produce copious nectar, and the various species of grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) are no exception. The flower stem also provided the Aborigines with spearshafts and firesticks.
No account of the food plants of the drier parts of Australia would be complete without mentioning the ubiquitous prickly pear (Opuntia stricta), whose succulent purple/red fruits make such delicious jams, jellies and wines. Though not a native of this country, it has been naturalised for many years, as has the Chinee apple or jujube (Zizyphus mauritiana) whose small oval fruits may be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried like dates.
Indigenous Australian foods have always been integrated to some extent in Australian food culture. It is certainly true that in Colonial times, those settlers who learned about local foods from the Aborigines and used them or who experimented for themselves, fared much better than those who did not. However, as time progressed and supplies of exotic foodstuffs became more accessible, this knowledge was ignored. As transport links developed, even country cooks abandoned the use of wild foods which could not compete with those of overseas origin in terms of harvestable quantities and culinary attention. In the cities, they became increasingly difficult to find, until the renewed interest in growing Australian plants blossomed in the 60s.
Perhaps this decade will see a reintegration of indigenous plant foods into a contemporary Australian cuisine and from the myriad plants available, at least a few commercial crops developed to join the hitherto solitary Australian contribution to world foods - the macadamia nut.
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Australian Food Plants Study Group. Newsletters: 1-26.
Cherikoff, V. and Isaacs, J. (1989). The bush food handbook. Sydney: Ti Tree Press.
Cribb, A.B. and Cribb, J.W. (1985). Plant life of the Great Barrier Reef and adjacent shores. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Cribb, A.B. and Cribb, J.W. (1974). Wild food in Australia. Sydney: Collins. Earl, J. (1996). A fatal recipe for Burke and Wills. Australian Geographic. 43: 28-29.
Isaacs, J. (1987). Bush food. Sydney: Landsdowne.
Leiper, G. (1984). Mutooroo. Brisbane: Eagleby South State School.
Low, T. (1989). Bush tucker: Australia's wild food harvest. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Low, T. (1991). Wild food plants of Australia. Sydney: Collins Angus and Robertson.
Sked, J. ed. (1985). Go native: wild food cookbook. Pine Rivers Society for Growing Australian Plants.
Thozet, A. (1886). Notes on some of the roots, tubers, bulbs and fruits, used as vegetable food by the Aboriginals of Northern: Queensland, Australia. Rockhampton: W.H. Buzacott.
DATE: February 1999
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