The first Australians had a far healthier diet than the early settlers, but because there was ignorance about the value of the strange new country and plants and people, the settlers missed a whole wealth of nutrition, so readily available but unused.
The Aboriginal people were among the world's most efficient hunters; though not always successful, they were excellent. As well, the women were gatherers and as such, knowledgeable botanists, able to utilise plants for medical purposes. Unfortunately this knowledge has been lost.
Rainforest fruits which are edible are the Eugenia species, which are identified by their fluffy flowers and opposite leaves. The best of these is the Eugenia carissoides, the Cedar Bay Cherry, which is an attractive evergreen shrub, the only true Eugenia of Australia.
If we walk along the beach we see above the high tide mark a creeper with blue flowers, camel foot-shaped leaves and a swollen tuber which is like a sweet potato. There is also the Finger Cherry, Rhodomyrtus macrocarpa, but this is poisonous. Then we have Capparis lucida, shining black outside and orange inside, pleasant to smell and nice to eat. Then creeping over the mangroves is the Umphalia which has nutty fruit, but they must be roasted before eating them. There are a few more highly desirable native fruits in the same category of needing to be roasted, to make it possible to eat them and not be poisoned.
The Candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana), a castor oil relative can kill or at least cause gastric upset, but because of the richness of the oil it is used for lighting by the Indonesians. It has a relative prized for flavouring cakes.
Then along the grassy flat we meet a red hibiscus creeper Hibiscus rhodopetalus with a swollen tuber which can be eaten raw or roasted. Alongside there is a plant like a palm seedling but only 9" high fully mature with small yellow flowers; the swollen tuber of this can be eaten raw or roasted. On higher ground there is Blady grass, the roots of which are like a small sugar cane, very sweet.
Not far from the beach is Cordia, with orange flowers, round fruit, and multiple embryos which are very tasty kernels. Then we see Terminalia catappa which the Thursday Islanders considered an aphrodisiac; then Terminalia muelleri (Indian Almond) with the horizontal branches and lovely red-turning deciduous leaves, as well as damson-purple plum-like fruit.
Not 30 feet from the beach is Antidesma bunius with lovely fruit but insignificant flowers; wild here, but in S.E. Asia they are village trees with sour fresh fruit which preserve well and make a good wine. Up the creeks we meet another Antidesma, the Herbert River Cherry (Antidesma dallachyanum), with fruit up to 1" in diameter bearing so prolifically that it can break branches. They need male and female trees and many are to be seen on the Herberton-Ravenshoe road.
Many ferns can be eaten before the leaf unfurls and in the U.S.A. are known as "poor man's greens". Among the ferns is a fine celery-like one, prized by Japanese and served with raw shrimps.
Further on is the Burdekin Plum (Pleiogynium timorense), a Mango relative, which the early settlers learned to eat, but which the Aboriginals buried in sand to hasten edibility and we may put them in brown paper bags for the same effect. In the Rainforest we encounter the Cycads, nature's first attempt at seeds. These are toxic to cattle as they cause rickets. The Aboriginals used to place 6 or 10 in holes in a rock and pound them, then soak in a string bag in running water for a week and then make a bread which was a famine food. How did they learn the process? No one knows.
Further up is the Queensland nut (Macadamia), edible but so hard that the natives would allow cassowary to eat them first to digest the hard cover enough to make it easier to crack.
Then there is Elaeocarpus bancroftii, a four sided nut with the texture outside of an almond. It is variable but it should be possible to improve on it, with cross-breeding and selection.
Davidson's Plum (Davidsonia pruriens) is next, a large hairy-leaved rainforest tree with big purple fruit scarlet on the inside, and excellent for jam; better than the Rosella and good for wine. The hair on the leaves can irritate some people.
Along the Koah road is a native rose (not recognised as a rose), with a dry mealy fruit, nice to eat.
There are two native passionfruit, edible but not prolific. Another Antidesma is also here, one of the sweetest of native fruits and excellent for flavouring other bulk fruit like pumpkin or pie melon.
There are countless many more. It is not possible to include them all here, but this serves to show the wealth to be found.
From the talks given by Mr. Vince Winkel in June 1983 at Cairns and Mossman. The above notes cover only part of the very interesting talk given by Mr. Winkel.
DATE: July 1983
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