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By GRAEME O'NEILL; 10th March, 2000
An Vietnamese immigrant has gone into the bush tucker business by cultivating an Australian relative of alligator weed, one of the world's worst water weeds, as a herb or green vegetable.
The twist is that farmer Tranh Trinh, of Lara, near Geelong, isn't growing the native waterweed, Alternanthera denticulata for Australian gourmands with a taste for native tucker.
Rather, his customers at the Springvale Markets are fellow Vietnamese and Sri Lankan immigrants nostalgic for traditional greens for their own recipes - in this case, a South-east Asian cousin of alligator weed, Alternanthera sessilis or "mukunu-wenna", as it is known in Sri Lanka.
As described in an article in last week's Sunday Herald-Sun, Sri Lankan immigrants have been growing alligator weed, A. philoxeroides as a substitute for the species that grows in Sri Lanka and other South-east Asian countries. They were unaware of its potential to escape from suburban gardens and choke rivers, streams and lakes throughout temperate Australia.
Alligator weed comes from the Parana River in South America. The only known infestations in Australia were brought under control by biological control insects in the late 1970s.
But the weed was not eradicated, and since then, the weed has been spread to every state by immigrants who use it as a substitute for mukuna-wenna, a poplar herb and green vegetable in Sri Lanka and several other south-east Asian countries.
Mukuna-wenna is not available in Australia, and could pose a similar threat to the environment if it was illegally imported in the absence of the insect pests that control it in its native range.
Sri Lankan-born Weed ecologist Dr Lalith Gunasekera, of the Keith Turnbull Research Institute in Frankston, says he received another 15 reports on suspected alligator weed infestations in Melbourne backyards as a a result of last week's article - although on investigation, several turned out not to be alligator weed.
To counter the dire threat that alligator weed poses to Victorian waterways, the Department of natural Resources has given away 5000 free seedlings of the Australian species, A.denticulate, to members of the Sri Lankan and Vietnamese communities.
Dr Gunasekera says some people have reported that the Australian species is superior not only to alligator weed, which he describes as rather watery in texture and less tasty, but is at least as flavorsome and nutritious as the real McCoy, mukuna-wenna.
Out at Lara, Tranh Trinh has been preparing bunches of alligator weed's friendly "bush tucker" cousin for sale from his stall the Springvale Markets, within earshot of stalls where Dr Gunasekera has recently found pots of alligator weed for sale, or pieces of weed for sale to aquarium owners. It is illegal to sell or plant alligator weed anywhere in Australia.
Mr Tranh may be sitting on a green goldmine - a new crop that has been overlooked by Australian bush tucker growers. It may only be a matter of time before adventurous Australian cooks start experimenting with his new native alternative - or complement - to spinach and cabbage.
Meanwhile, Dr Gunasekera has urged anyone else who may know of other backyard plantings of alligator weed to contact him on his mobile number, 0408 148 271.
"Even if it turns out not to be alligator weed, it's better to investigate than to run the risk of the weed escaping and invading our waterways," he said.


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