By Greg Calvert
In the last ten years, there has been a massive upsurge of interest in edible native plants, known by many as "Bush Tucker". While there is a series of tests which can be conducted on fruits to determine if they are edible, there are several species which enthusiasts should be aware can do serious harm if experimented with.
(Rhodomyrtus macrocarpa): When I was first learning about edible plants, I taught myself a rule: "If it is a fleshy fruited plant in the huge Myrtaceae family, then it is edible". This is true for all of those eighty plus trees and shrubs in Australia, except for possibly one species.
The Finger Cherry or Native Loquat is a common rainforest tree in the Wet Tropics and Cape York Peninsula, with large leaves and spectacular crops of bright red cigar shaped fruit with numerous seeds. Under the careful supervision of an Aboriginal elder (whose botanical knowledge I trusted completely), I skinned and tasted one of these fruit. It was absolutely delicious! Possibly one of the nicest eating of all the Cape York Bush Tucker and they certainly pass all the taste tests for toxic plants.
The problem is, that people who have gorged themselves on this fruit have gone suddenly and irreparably blind, and there is no cure or treatment known. Aborigines on Cape York inform me that they have eaten this plant all their lives and have never heard nor seen of these drastic symptoms. In Hopevale, near Cooktown, Aboriginal elders say they used to skin or roast the fruit prior to eating it but stated that they felt it was "like playing Russian roulette".
Authorities are at a loss to explain the plant's toxicity. Some suggest that unripe or partially ripe fruit are the culprit. It is actually quite common for plants to load their unripe fruit with toxins to deter premature dispersal. The other theory is that there is some sort of fungi growing on the skin of the fruit. Whatever the reason, this is a plant for all enthusiasts to be aware and beware of.
(Cycas, Lepidozamia, Macrozamia spp). The large plump nuts of the palm-like cycad tempted many early explorers into giving them a taste. The results were punishing to say the least, causing violent eruptions from both ends of their bodies. The Dutch explorer de Vlamingh recorded in 1696 that "The sailors who ate these nuts crawled all over the earth and made ungovernable movements".
Cattle graziers also consider the plant a pest, pointing out that cattle which feed on the plant become "rickety" and lose coordination of their movements before finally dying. This is because the cycad nuts contain powerful neurotoxins that disrupt and interfere with nerve messages. Surprisingly enough, these nuts were a staple diet of the Aborigines whose traditional knowledge included how to roast and process the seeds to remove these toxins. The seeds are, after all, very high in energy, fat and carbohydrates. This practice is also carried out in Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Guam and the Kii Peninsula in Japan. Medical researchers recently discovered a rare neuro-degenerative disease called "Western Pacific Parkinsonism-dementia" (also known as "Guam Disease") amongst those people whose traditional diet includes cycads.
Apparently, a long term, slow acting toxin from partially treated nuts is the cause of this crippling degenerative disease. It just goes to prove that even if you think you have succeeded in processing the nuts to the point where they cause no immediate effects, the toxins may still catch up with you in the years to come!
(Semecarpus australiensis): Most people relish and adore the delicious nuts of the Cashew Tree (Anacardium occidentale), yet few people are aware that the nuts are actually toxic without prior preparation.
The exotic cashew does, however, have a large and fleshy "apple" to which the nut is attached. This "apple" is extremely delicious, makes great wine and preserves and can be eaten without any treatment necessary. Peoples' familiarity with the cashew tree also drives many people to take an interest in our own native cashew.
Like the commercial species, the nut is poisonous, however, our native species is far more extreme than that grown in farms. The point of attachment between the apple and the nut bleeds a black resinous substance that can strip the chrome plating off car keys and strip paint off a car parked beneath the tree. Needless to say, contact with this sap can cause deep and painful ulcerations, as it did to explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who experimented with the fruit. Some people have assured me that the apple is harmless, yet I have seen black patches of sticky resin appear on the surface after I have scratched the skin. The damage to your throat that would occur from eating this plant does not bear imagining.
Not only the fruit is toxic. The entire plant is capable of causing severe contact dermatitis in sensitive people.
A friend of mine was recently conducting a botanical survey of Yam Island in the Torres Strait, when he encountered this tree. He took a bark blaze, collected some foliage for his plant press and handled some fruit. The next day he was airlifted back to Cairns hospital with extreme skin lesions and blisters over much of his body.
Usually I would recommend avoiding this plant like the plague, however, I have some seedlings to give away to anybody who wants to plant them around their poolside or outdoor recreation area!
(Dendrocnide moroides) Also known as Gympie-Gympie, this is one of the most feared plants of the rainforest. Fortunately, it is easily recognised so that most people who are stung are those who are ignorant about plants and their identification. Kind of sweet poetic justice really.
The leaves and stem of the plant are covered in hollow glass needles filled with a highly irritating toxin. Merely brushing against this plant can cause excruciating pain, which re-occurs every time that body part gets cold. This can continue for up to a year!
Many people are sceptical about the edibility of the fruit, yet I can assure them that they are indeed edible, though quite bland and watery. The dangerous thing about
the fruit is that they too are covered in dangerous hairs. To eat them, the fruit are knocked off the shrub with a long stick, then gathered up in a piece of rag or hessian cloth. The fruit are then rubbed vigorously within the cloth to knock off any of the hairs. The fruit are irregular in shape and some hairs may still persist. I find it is a good policy to pull them apart and rub them with bare hands. It is, after all, a far better thing to be stung on the hands than in the mouth or throat. I am sure that most would agree that this is a lot of trouble and a large amount of danger for eating a fruit that has little to recommend it anyway. Having been badly stung myself while collecting fruit, I would advise leaving it well alone.
You have been warned!
Dendrocnide moroides - from Native Plants of Qld
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I am currently the Acting Head of Department in Science at Alexandra Hills State High School, in greater Brisbane. Our year 12 Multistrand Science students will be starting a unit on Bush Tucker in a few weeks time.
1. Can any body tell me where we could get hold of some bushfoods for the course, locally?
2. Are there any Brisbane "experts" who would be prepared to come and give a talk to students? I am sorry but there would be no funds available for the latter.
Thanks for any help.
There are many people who could help you out in Brisbane. let me make offer some suggestions;
1. You would be welcome to attend our Queensland Bushfood Meetings (at the Botanical Gardens at Mt Cootha.) This way you would meet many of us who meet quarterly and see who can set up a time to come to your school.
2. There are men and women who could assist you who live in Brisbane or who live not far out of Brisbane. Many have been researching and studying bushfoods for many years, but they wouldn't call themselves experts. Because there is still so much learning going on.
3. I can offer you a visit to my place. I do farm tours. We are 50 min from the GPO just off the Cunningham Highway. Your group could come and see many trees and taste product made from the fruit and leaf. We have trialed only about 40 trees, which isn't many compared to the 4000 that we have in Australia.
4. Alternatively you could purchase some of our product to try at your school. I'm sure you will get lots of responses. If I can be of any further assistance. My phone no is
07 54646667. Jenni Weekes, Weewalk Bushfoods.
Steve Ross here from AZEC (Arid Zone Environmental Consultants ) I have data sheets on bush food species and methods of commercial growing for the arid and temperate species of Bush foods . I specialize in growing nursery stock, multi cropping systems, HAASCP or ISO2000 food standards from field to the table and do educational workshops for the industry growers in NSW, SA, & THE TOP OF VIC and also cook gourmet dinners with Australian native foods.I would be able to help some of your more dilagent students when I am in town by email
Native food seedlings for WA
Just writing to enquire as to who may be interested in supplying co-operatives of Western Australian farmers with arid native food species. The list is growing and we are wanting to explore what suppliers are out there and willing to co-operate with us. Of particular interest are desert lime and bush tomato seedlings. We are only interested in suppliers who are able to supply more than on their word!!!
Thanks to anyone who can help us!
With somebody else's checkbook, I'd be funding research into the chemical properties of some of the local bush foods and bush medicines in the W.A.Goldfields, then germination trials and direct seeding trials.
I am very interested in growing bushfood commercially. I own 40 acres of natural bushland near Canberra. I wish to retain the bush environment, but I would like to farm commercially bushfood. This will mean planting viable plants on the property. We intend to keep the land with native bush. As a long term project we want to plant further natives with the intention to be a viable supply of bushfoods. I am new at this and upon visiting your web site I was hoping you may advise me on the following:
- what type of plants would suit our climate and are in demand by industry;
- what quantities should be planted;
- how do we manage and look after the plants;
- how long till we get a harvest;
- how do we manage and look after the harvest;
- how do we get the harvest to a buyer; and
- are there any reference material we can learn more from;
I am serious about this venture, and I believe I am in a position that I can maximise the venture by starting from scratch and planting the correct types of bushfoods that is required.
We are forming a bushfood group in the Canberra region that you might be interested in. We are having a meeting very soon. Already there has been some discussion of what species are suitable for our area. Those interested so far have a wide background from chefs to researchers and hobbyists.
Your questions require lots of info which would take a while to reply to - email me direct if you would like details:
bye for now, Margie Burk
I live in the Texas area in Queensland. I have identified some species growing on my property, but there are many others yet to know about. How can I identify those i'm not sure about?
There is a Landcare/Greening Australia setup in Inglewood - about 50km away. I've planned to get in
contact with them soon. A friend has suggested that the prickly bush is current bush, but I've not been at home yet to verify this.
Hi all from Mullumbimby, NSW
I found a useful book to try to identify some trees and shrubs on our farm, this is a revised editon of Leonard Cronins book Australian Trees. Key Guide series. It has beautiful colour illustrations of leaf, flower and fruit/nut detail, also includes some of those naturalised aliens. Trees and shrubs only, not herbs but a useful book. I found it at an ABC or Dymocks type shop in Byron Bay.
Winifred BowerRe: Texas ID
I am after some information on Quandongs. Do you have any fact sheets or relevant info I could get hold of - particularly in electronic format. Information on site selection, establishment, management, potential uses, production costs, etc. Thank you
Avon Catchment Network
08 9690 2266
Hi Native Food People,
I am trying to find some information relating to pests and diseases of lemon myrtle, mountain pepper and riberry. Does anybody have any information on these subjects?
Re: lemon myrtle disease
I haven't had that problem. To combat any problems I use Neem Oil or White Oil... both organic.
Writing further to enquiries I had back some months now. Just wondering if you are able to collect and sell me some Ficus coronata seed. I am in Western Australia. Anybody know which of all the native figs is the tastiest and easiest to process with minimal labour inputs.I await your response. Regards
Ficus coronata and Ficus fraseri (both commonly called sandpaper figs) are excellent. Coronata fruit have the better taste although among both varieties there is considerable difference in taste from tree to tree.
Coronata also seem a little easier to establish. I have two year old
coronata which fruited lightly this year and are nearly two metres tall (in an area which is open and has light frost).
Both are easy to propagate and are fruiting about now although the season here is just about over. Please contact me if you want to know more. Steve
Mothar Mountain Bushfoods. firstname.lastname@example.org
I've identified currant bush, wait-a-while, wild orange and quinine tree. Anybody have any need for these? I've put some photos and a bit of info on my web site http://au.geocities.com/icewalker.au under bushfoods.
Mothar Mountain Bushfoods. email@example.com
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Join the Australian Plants Society.
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