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Australian Bush Tucker: New Crops, New Industry

T.J.Christensen, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

A. Beal, Australian Native Produce Industries

Home | Contents | Abstract | Introduction | Identification of Suitable Foods | Types of Foods | Environmental Impact / Sustainability | Industry Development | Botanic Garden Roles | References | Appendix of Bush Tucker species

Abstract

Aboriginal people in Australia have survived on the local foods, of which plants are a major component, for thousands of years. The early settlers used some of the local foods, often through necessity, but it has only been in recent times that it has been realised that there is considerable value and uniqueness to the Australian flora from a food perspective.

The Australian bushfood industry is developing rapidly. Currently, much of the produce used is harvested directly from the wild by aboriginal communities and by licensed collectors. There are several concerns surrounding continued harvesting from the wild, especially as the demand for produce increases. The sustainability of wild populations, direct and indirect environmental impacts as well as conservation of individual species and plant communities are all of major concern. These, coupled with the inevitable inefficiencies from wild harvests, have led to the formation and rapid growth of a commercial bushfood production industry based on farming of bushfoods. The selection and development of superior plant varieties is a major aspect of this.

Botanic Gardens are significant players due to their expertise in plant identification, their long historical association with economic botany, ongoing commitment to the principles of plant conservation and sustainability and their role as major educational resources on plants and their uses.

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Introduction

After 2 centuries of European settlement, Australians have only discovered in more recent times that the bush provides a plentiful source of food and survival resources. Early colonists learnt from the indigenous people that plants and animals in particular could be a valuable source of food in the absence of the more familiar produce.

A common misconception has been that the Aboriginal people survived on kangaroos, lizards and witchetty grubs – large caterpillars found in the roots of certain Acacia species (Latz, 1995). Plants had many, if not more uses in sustaining life, being an extremely important part of everyday life. Trees and other plants provided materials for erecting shelters; tools were made from wood and fibres; implements for gathering, catching and preparing foods, digging sticks, spears, boomerangs, bowls, fishing nets; fibres for clothing, footwear, ornamentation; vegetable dyes for painting and ceremonies and weapons for fighting. Often the plant foods collected mainly by the women provided a more consistent resource than the less reliable returns from hunting.

As a generalisation, bushfoods have a similar, or in some cases much higher nutritional value than their domesticated counterparts, with a very large range of flavours and texture (Cherikoff & Isaacs, 1989).

Many of our ideas concerning foods are based on a Eurocentric notion, making it difficult for the casual visitor to the bush, especially in the drier central and southern areas of Australia, to comprehend that there is a wide variety of plant foods available. The proportion of the diet comprising plant foods would vary depending on the area, the time of year, season and the abundance of game animals. Over the whole of Australia, it has been stated that between 4000 and 5000 different plants may have been utilised for food. In dry Central Australia alone, approximately 140 species are still utilised today (Latz,1995).

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Identification of Suitable Foods

A little knowledge of bush foods can be very misleading and dangerous. An impression may be created that even the most hostile environment is full of a range of foods available at will. In reality, inexperienced people will find that most bushfoods are often difficult to locate in sufficient quantities to ensure ease of survival. Some bushfoods are also either indigestible or poisonous, often requiring proper treatment before use.

A good example is that of Marsilea,( "Nardoo"), which at times can be found in great abundance following heavy rains. The sporocarps are ground into a mealy flour and baked. Unfortunately although eating this food will fill the stomach and prevent the feeling of hunger, it has vitually no nutritional value and if eaten in large quantities without proper preparation, becomes toxic, producing an enzyme, which prevents the uptake of some vitamins by the body.

Botanical knowledge and expertise is required to correctly recognise and identify certain food plants. This is certainly the case with the large number of Solanum species found in Australia, many of which contain high levels of toxic alkaloids, but on the other hand several are very important and widely used bushfoods.

The native tobacco, Nicotiana, is a good example of this point. Several species have been utilised by Aboriginal people, principally by drying the plant, grinding and mixing with ash to form a mass for chewing. The most sought after species are N.gossei, N.excelsior, N.rosulata and N benthamii where the principal alkaloid is nicotine. Some species however contain as the principal alkaloid, anabasine. Anabasine is similar in structure to nicotine but appears to be far more potent in humans despite a slower onset of action. Anabasine is found in the species N. debneyi and N.rotundifolia, both native species, as well as in the introduced and now very widespread N.glauca. A recent death has been recorded in South Australia from misuse of N.glauca and anabasine toxicity, possibly as a result of incorrect identification by the individual concerned.

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Types of Foods

As mentioned previously, the range of native plants that have traditionally been utilised for food is immense. Those mentioned here are only a few of the main ones and in particular relate to their acceptance in a modern multicultural Western style society.

Seeds and pods (ripe and green) of selected Acacia species, have traditionally been used as a major food source in particular in the drier temperate ares of Australia. In these areas they were relied upon as a dietary item, and in Central Australia it has been estimated that approximately 50% of the species have supplied seed for food purposes. A commonly used species, Acacia aneura ("Mulga"), has food values comparative to those of peanuts and generally the nutritional value of dry seed is very good, comparable to most other legume seeds. Some species are known to contain protease inhibitors however these are generally broken down by cooking, as was the general practice by aboriginal people. Toxic amino acids are known from some species but often at very low levels (Maslin et al, 1998). It is this area of individual species toxicity that requires more research before many of the Australian species can be utilised.

The industry is currently reliant on wild harvested seed although this is changing . The more commonly used species are relatively easily obtainable in the wild, producing large volumes of seed.

Acacia victoriae is the major species of importance to the bushfood industry at present and it occurs naturally over a large area of Central Australia. Seed are harvested to produce flour for use in a range of products such as bread, biscuits, pasta, ice cream, drinks etc. A. murrayana is a species almost as promising with very good nutritional qualities and having been commonly used by aborigines. Both species lend themselves to farming as they are easily propagated and can be regenerated by coppicing and the stimulation of sucker regrowth (Maslin et al, 1998). A.papyrocarpa produces a very good flour with high market potential, but due to its slow growth rate and erratic cropping, may require further research and selection to become a major species. Other promising species include A. pycnantha, A. saligna, A.retinodes, and A. notabilis to name only a small selection.

Fruit are often the first to be thought of as bush food. Some were considered staple foods with others being used by chance or as minor additions to the basic diet. The most important of the staple foods were the fruit of the large and widespread genus Solanum. Some species have inedible fruit, in particular those that are hard and dry. The most important species, especially commercially, is Solanum centrale ( "Bush Tomato"), which occurs naturally in the dry areas of Central Australia. Fruit of this species ripen at any time of the year, depending on climatic conditions, and are eaten fresh or dried. Other important species include S. chippendalei and S. diversifolium ( "Native Apricots"), S. ellipticum, S.coactiliferum, S. aviculare and S. linearifolium.

One of the most well known and popular of all native fruits is that of Santalum acuminatum ( "Quandong"). Fruit may be eaten fresh but are generally dried and then reconstituted and used as a dessert or savoury fruit. Aboriginal people used the flesh and the kernels in their diet, as well as drying and storing the fruit for later use. The fruit has a very high vitamin C content, slightly better than that of oranges, while the sugar content is low in comparison to most domesticated fruits. The kernel contains santalbic acid, which reputedly has antibiotic properties. The Quandong is probably the most researched native food plant, after Macadamia, with a number of superior forms having been selected for reliability, higher yields, fruit size and sweetness and pest and disease resistance.

Other important or potential fruit crops include Podocarpus elatus ("Illawarra Plum"), Leichhardtia australis ("Native Pear"), Eremocitrus glauca ("Native Lime"), Microcitrus australis, Szyzgium luehmanii ("Riberry"), S. paniculatum, Achronychia acidula ("Lemon Aspen") and Capparis mitchellii ("Native Orange") to name a few.

Leaves consumed as greens were not an important part of the Aboriginal people’s diet, mainly due to their being generally of low palatability. In the drier areas of Australia they would also have only been available for short periods of time following rain. Calandrinia balonensis would be one of the better known greens as it survives as a succulent, but probably appreciated more for it’s attractive flowers. Early explorers used the leaves of Portulaca oleracea, however these contain high levels of oxalic acid. The seeds of this plant are used traditionally and are quite important. The fleshy leaves of Carpobrotus species ("Pigface"), have also been used, having a salty taste and are also a good source of moisture. None of these plants are important commercially.

The main leaf crop commercially is Tetragonia tetragonioides ("Warrigal Spinach"), which can be eaten raw or cooked. Other commercial plants include Viola betonicifolia and Ipomoea aquatica.

Herbs, spices and condiments are currently the most marketable aspect of native foods, due largely to the great range and strength of flavours. Mostly a similar range of genera are encountered as the commonly used introduced herbs and spices. Leaves used as herbs or spices include Mentha spp. ("Native Mints"), Ocimum spp. ("Native Basil"), Apium prostratum ("Sea Parsley"), Plectranthus spp. ("Five Spice") and Prostanthera spp. ("Mint Bush").

The leaves of Backhousia citriodora ("LemonMyrtle") and other Backhousia species have become important commercial bushfood plants due to the unique flavours they impart as condiments. The strongly flavoured leaves can be picked at any time of the year and used either fresh, or dried and ground and used to flavour a wide range of food and beverages. There is no evidence of these plants being used by the Aboriginal population but have been discovered and utilised by the more recent arrivals to this country, for the more familiar flavouring qualities they impart. Some would argue that as the plants were not utilised by the indigenous population, they should not be classed as bushfoods.

The fruit and leaves of Tasmannia lanceolata ("Mountain Pepper") have enormous potential as a spice and are becoming highly sought after. They contain a hot chili or pepper like factor and are used to flavour meats, sauces, breads, pate etc. The leaves are dried and milled to different grades for use, as are the fruit which are very hot.

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Environmental Impact / Sustainability

Whether commercial utilisation of wildlife is acceptable and what impact it has on the target species, depends to a large extent on whether that species can withstand the impact of repeated removals of individuals or potential propagules. The commercial use of any species of native wildlife, plant or animal, may be a threat to the conservation status of that species and diminish the conservation value of the environment in which it lives (Senate Reference Committee, 1998).

Major impediments to sustainability revolve around the lack of sufficient scientific knowledge required to allow an adequate assessment. Basic information is required about taxonomy, population dynamics and ecosystem relationships.

There can be both beneficial and detrimental environmental impacts of commercial utilisation of bushfoods, and will vary depending on the type of operation necessary to extract the bushfood components. Environmental benefit through commercial harvesting can be via several factors, including:

As stated in the report of the Senate Reference Committee (1998), these may lead to long term benefits such as:

Detrimental effects of commercial harvesting relate to loss of species and the real and potential impact on non-target species, as well as the physical impact on the environment. Harvests need to be sufficiently well regulated so that sustainable populations are maintained, which will require a monitoring process to be in place to oversee the actions of licensees. Unfortunately as the industry gathers momentum, market forces increase the demand for products and increase the risk of inappropriate actions taking place. A thorough knowledge of species biology is essential to counter such forces, as the species with the greatest risk will be those with the slowest growth rates and lowest reproductive rates.

Other detrimental effects include the damage to soil structure by vehicular access; the introduction of pathogens; damage to non- target vegetation; the introduction of weeds; refuse; the creation of tracks for access and so the destruction of other vegetation, not to mention possible effects on fauna populations in the vicinity.

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Industry Development

Interest in Australian bushfood among the European population of Australia began in earnest approximately 15 years ago, despite the fact that Aboriginal people have survived on native foods for thousands of years. It has only been in the last few years that the industry has developed some commercial momentum, even though it remains small and relatively undercapitalised.

To assist in accelerating the rate of development of the industry, the Australian Native Bushfood Industry Committee has been formed under the auspices of the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industries. Developing the industry will offer a commercially viable alternative to supplement marginal agricultural enterprises, irrigated and dryland. In addition, it provides a vehicle for focussing recognition of the richness of Australian aboriginal diet and culture.

To date harvesting from the wild has been the principal form of supply. As interest has grown, so too has demand, which now outstrips supply for some native foods. For the emerging native foods industry to continue to grow in an orderly manner, and to respond to the rapid increase in demand now anticipated, it is necessary to secure the supply of quality raw produce. To achieve this without compromising the conservation status of the core species in the wild, as well as overcoming the inherent inefficiencies and variations in quality and quantity of wild harvests, it is important to continue the concerted move towards farming (Beal & Fielke,1998).

Farming provides multiple benefits with regard to risk. For example, cultivation will reduce the risk of a failed (or poor quality) wild crop due to seasonal conditions. In addition, the State Governments of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, are considering controls that would further limit access to wild sources of raw produce. Western Australia already has strict controls limiting such access.

Currently wild collected produce accounts for approximately 80% of the industry however it has been estimated that within 5 years almost 100% will be from commercial bushfood farming enterprises. Harvesting from the wild is conducted by licensed collectors and by Aboriginal communities, but is very labour intensive with a high cost of harvesting coupled with unreliability of plant production.

A leading player in the Australian bushfood industry is Australian Native Produce Industries (ANPI) of Renmark, South Australia. ANPI was formed in 1992, and commenced operations in January 1993. A "fully-integrated" structure comprising a production nursery, a farm and a food processing facility has been established. The company propagates, cultivates, collects from the wild, processes and markets a broad range of Australian native foods.

The main functions of ANPI are:

  1. Discovery, sourcing and improvement of superior genetic types of native food plants for commercialisation.
  2. Propagation of a broad range of native food plants for use by ANPI, sale to commercial growers of raw produce, and to the home garden market.
  3. Farming of native foods to provide raw produce for processing.
  4. Manufacturing processed native food products for sale to the food service sector (restaurants and caterers), and retail gourmet foods market.
  5. Marketing and distribution of native food plants and products.
  6. Promotion of the concept of an Australian native cuisine.

The strength of the Bushfood industry lies in its new and unique flavours, colours and textures that have helped create a distinctive Australian cuisine. Bushfood sales are currently estimated to be $20 million per annum and are expected to grow to at least $100 million by the year 2002.

In 1996 the Australian Bushfoods Industry Council, a National Industry body, identified 12 native crop species considered to have the best prospects for commercialisation.

No.

Common Name

Scientific Name

1

Bush Tomato

Solanum centrale

2

Illawarra Plum

Podocarpus elatus

3

Kakadu Plum

Terminalia ferdinandiana

4

Lemon Aspen

Acronychia acidula

5

Lemon Myrtle

Backhousia citriodora

6

Mountain Pepper

Tasmannia lanceolata

7

Muntries

Kunzea pomifera

8

Quandong

Santalum acuminatum

9

Riberry

Syzygium leuhmannii

10

Warrigal Spinach

Tetragonia tetragonioides

11

Wattle Seed

Acacia spp.

12

Wild Limes

Eremocitrus glauca, Microcitrus sp.

The list is not intended to be all inclusive, but is simply an attempt to identify the likely "best bets" for anyone contemplating entering the industry, or re-focusing existing activities. As would be expected in any new industry, the mix of crop species will change with regard to relative importance over time.

Many other species, as previously mentioned, have been used traditionally but their development into an industry is compromised by various factors. An example is that of Acrotriche depressa which is one of the more delicious fruits available. Unfortunately it is a small plant, difficult to cultivate, but the main drawback is its tight spiny leaves making harvesting in any quantity non-viable, the fruit being borne amongst or below the leaves.

One of the most important issues influencing further development of the industry relates to the lack of genetically improved cultivars of most species. Much effort towards overcoming this is being carried out by organisations such as ANPI. The company has committed significant resources to selecting and obtaining new and improved genetic material of several bushfoods identified as being commercially viable and with a long tem future.

Some examples of this work include the "Native Citrus" or "wild limes" in the Microcitrus and Eremocitrus groups. CSIRO Division of Horticulture has developed several native citrus clones and hybrids, 4 of which are currently being commercialised. ANPI has obtained exclusive rights from the CSIRO, for a 25 year period, to commercialise two native citrus hybrids. Both are protected by Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR) to ensure that the rights of the CSIRO, ANPI and contracted growers are protected (Beal,1998).

The ‘Australian Blood Lime’ PBR is grown for its culinary attributes and striking, blood red coloured fruit. The ‘Australian Sunrise Lime’ PBR is also grown for its culinary attributes and the appearance of its attractive golden, pear-shaped fruit. The Australian-ness of these hybrids confers upon them a powerful marketing advantage. Growth markets for these varieties have been identified within the native foods industry and the mainstream food industry.

Commercialisation of the hybrids commenced with distribution of the first planting material in 1996 and 1997, and to date approximately 10,000 trees have been distributed to a network of contracted growers throughout Australia.

Other examples include the South Australian native, Kunzea pomifera, ("Muntries") which commercially, is one of the more widely used bushfoods. Wild collected fruit tend to be variable in size, usually small (8-10 mm diameter). A selection made by ANPI has been developed under the cultivar name of ‘Rivoli Bay’ PBR and is distinguished by the fruit, which are approximately 15mm in diameter.

The exciting aspect of such work, from a horticultural viewpoint, is that we are witnessing the evolution and domestication of whole new crops from selection of the wild genotypes to development and commercialising of selected superior strains. Such a process is quite rare and long term. Modern selection and propagation techniques are being employed to speed up this process considerably.

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Botanic Garden Roles

Historically, Botanic Gardens throughout the world have been actively involved in aspects of economic botany. This has related, in particular, to the introduction of new crops to many countries by the selection, trialing and development of new species and varieties. In the early days of many gardens, this would possibly have been one of the prime functions in order to assist the development of new colonies etc. Although this is no longer the key purpose of a Botanic Garden, it is still one of the many areas where there is an important role.

Botanic Gardens can be significant players regarding information on bushfoods and the development of the bushfood industry. The identification and taxonomic resources available at most establishments provide a major support for individuals and industry alike. This is illustrated by the cooperation over a number of years between the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide and ANPI.

Botanic Gardens through their involvement with conservation and sustainability issues can provide important advice re wild harvesting and the potential environmental impacts. The most significant area however, from a public perspective, is through education programs that help provide an understanding, not just of individual plants, but of a whole traditional culture, its complex interrelationships and relevance to a modern society.

The Aboriginal plant use trails in the Adelaide Botanic Garden use plants to recreate a glimpse of traditional Aboriginal life on the Adelaide plains and across other areas of Australia. The stories the plants tell along the trail go far beyond bush-tucker or the traditional use of plants for food. They provide an insight into the detailed knowledge different Aboriginal groups had of their land and their ability to harvest it in a sustainable way. The trails, which incorporate some of the most interesting plants in the garden including original flora, provide over 10 000 students a year with an interactive, sensory approach to learning which integrates well with other nearby Aboriginal cultural excursion sites such as the SA Museum and the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute.

The trails cater for students from reception to year 12 (ie school entry to pre-university) and cover curriculum areas such as food, culture, Aboriginal studies, environmental studies, science and technology. These trails are by now the most popular of all education trails used in the Botanic Gardens.

The walks can be done in a number of different ways. One option, popular with schools and tourists, is for an Aboriginal cultural instructor to do an interpretive walk, which includes a tasting of various foods at the end of the trail. The garden education officer is available to take school students or, teachers can do it themselves using a comprehensive self-guiding trail book produced by the garden education service. On request Garden Guides are also able to provide interpretive tours.

References / Further Reading

Beal,A. and Fielke, R.(1998) The Developing Australian Native Foods Industry (Unpublished)

Beal,A. (1997) Native Citrus Management Workshop (Unpublished)

Cherikoff,V. and Isaacs,J. (1989) The Bush Food handbook, Ti Tree Press, Balmain

Clarke, A.C. (1986) The Study of Ethnobotany in southern South Australia, Australian Aboriginal Studies, No. 2

CSIRO Plant Industry Horticulture Unit (1998) The Quandong (Santalum acuminatum) Australian Bushfoods Magazine, No. 7

Latz, P. (1995) Bushfires and Bushtucker – Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia, IAD Press, Alice Springs

Maslin, B.R., Thomson, L.A.J., McDonald, M.W. and Hamilton-Brown, S. (1998) Edible Wattle Seeds of Southern Australia CSIRO Australia

Senate Rural Affairs and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, Commercial Utilisation of Australian Native Wildlife : Report, Commonwealth of Australia, 1998

Zola, N. and Gott, B. (1992), Koorie Plants, Koorie People, Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne

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Appendix of Bush Tucker species

Santalum acuminatum

Eremocitrus glauca (Native Lime)

Acrotriche (Honey Pots)

Billardiera (Appleberry)

Solanum centrale (Bush Tomato)

Solanum ellipticum

Solanum chippendalei

Solanum beaugelholei

Solanum clarkiae

Kunzea pomifera (Muntries)

Nitraria (Nitre Bush)

Podocarpus elatus (Illawarra Plum)

Syzygium paniculatum (Lilly Pilly)

Syzygium luehmannii (Riberry)

Leichhardtia australis (Native Pear)

Backhousia citriodora (Lemon Myrtle)

Tetragonia tetragonioides (Warrigal Spinach)

Calandrinia balonensis (Parakeelya)

Portulaca

Mentha australis

Capparis mitchellii (Wild Orange)

Acacia victoriae

Acacia murrayana

Acacia retinodes

Acacia calamifolia

Acacia aneura (Mulga)

Acacia pycnantha

Acacia confluens

Brachychiton populneus (Kurrajong)


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