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Australia's Native Food Plants: Towards a Sustainable Future

Contributed by Julie Foster, Australian National Botanic Gardens,GPO Box 1777, Canberra City, ACT2601, Australia.

Australian native plants sustained a population of indigenous people for many thousands of years. However, they were largely ignored by early European settlers who brought all their food, salted and dry, on their ships. They also brought farm animals and seeds for growing crops. Between 1788 and 1790 the colony in Sydney nearly starved before good land for wheat-growing had been found.

The fruits, seeds and tubers of many native plants are rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins; today there is increasing interest in the use of native plants for food.

In recent years many native plant foods have been chemically analysed and one – the billy goat plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) has been found to be the richest source of vitamin C in the world.

Macadamia nut (Macadamia integrifolia)

The macadamia nut has long been eaten by the Aboriginal people of southern Queensland, where this smooth, tasty nut grows naturally. Macadamia nuts have been grown commercially on the islands of Hawaii since 1900 and many cultivars have been produced. They have only been grown commercially in Australia since 1963. Salted, candied and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts are available throughout Australia and are also exported.

Sweet quandong (Santalum acuminatum)

This is a popular savoury or dessert fruit which may be eaten fresh. More often it is halved, dried and later reconstituted. Sugar is often added to reduce the acid taste and enhance the flavour of the fruit.

The seed is edible and highly nutritious.

Red bush apple (Syzygium suborbiculare)

This tree is an important source of food for the Aboriginal people of northern Australia. The fragrant fruits have a spongy texture and contain up to 17 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit. The trees frequently grow on sandy soils behind beaches.

The fruits of this and other species of Syzygium are used in jams, relishes, sorbets and ice-cream.

Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) – a wattle

The seeds of many wattles make good quality flour which is used in making damper, cakes, desserts, pastries and beverages. Milled and roasted seed is also used. The seeds of selected species are traditional food for many groups of Aboriginal people and there is growing interest in their use for food in the developing world. Ripe seeds are very high in protein (17 to 25%), fat (4 to 16%) and carbohydrate (30 to 40%).

Macquarie Island cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris)

This plant is endemic to Macquarie Island, a cold windswept island in the Southern Ocean, about 1000 km south-east of Tasmania. Its large geranium-like leaves were eaten by shipwrecked sailors and seal hunters in the last century to prevent scurvy. Studies are now under way at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, Australia, to assess its cultivation potential. This plant produces large amounts of seed annually and adapts readily to different soils. It is tolerant of a wide range of temperatures and regenerates readily from a rhizome.

Illawarra Plum (Podocarpus elatus)

This tree is a conifer which grows to a height of 5 to 35 metres. Male and female flowers are carried on separate trees. Blue-black plum-like fruits grow on female trees. A large seed is attached to the 'outside' of the flesh at the opposite end from the stem. The fruit has a subtle plum/pine flavour and is used in savoury foods such as chilli and 'plum' sauces for chutneys, jams and pies.