For thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years, humans have been selecting their foods for taste, size and other qualities. Early hunter gatherers, noting that a certain bush near a certain stream had a larger, sweeter berry than others, no doubt visited this tree first in their seasonal journeying. Their endless travels from one food to the next was not haphazard and the trails they followed would have been littered with seed from their take-away meals. There is some disagreement as to whether the Aboriginal people had a hand in the spread of certain plants or simply took their food as they found it. Common sense would tell us that, over a period of 40,000 years plus, they would certainly have encouraged those plants they found which gave them a ‘better’ food.
We’ve become very sophisticated at the process of selection and encouragement. Even the most brown-fingered gardener can collect seed from a favoured bush and attempt to germinate this seed and thus multiply its numbers. However, plants grown from seed aren’t always identical to the parent and we’ve had to look at others ways to replicate our chosen varieties. Cuttings, cloning, grafting and even micro-grafting are now stock in trade in the food and ornamental plant industries.
Why? We like the blood plum we eat today to look and taste much like the one we ate yesterday. Distributors like uniformity of size and ripeness to aid transport. Processors and cooks like identical levels of essential oils or sugars or pectin in the fruit they use to ensure the recipe works every time. Most importantly, growers are quick to replicate naturally occurring ‘sports’ they come across; the summer fruiting orange, the yellow fleshed watermelon, the seedless grape.
Australian bushfoods are anachronisms in the food world; ‘wild’ plants which (with some major exceptions) have not been tampered with, selected or even researched in any great degree.
Wild harvest is still a substantial component of the total bushfood crop and though the concept of native foods gathered in the wild is attractive, the reality has been massive swings in supply and relatively high prices, reflecting the cost of this latter day hunting-gathering.
‘Street harvest’ is an interesting adjunct to wild harvest. The Riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) has been a popular street tree in many towns and cities and, though the trees are seldom given much care and attention, a good season, in a city such as Brisbane, can yield up literally tonnes of this interesting fruit.
A season of harvesting the Riberry can highlight the enormous diversity to be found in our bushfoods. The trees themselves can be well formed and open branched or straggly and difficult. Some trees offer up the fruit in handy and easily harvested bunches; others distribute it in ones and twos throughout the plant. The fruit can be large (the size of an elongated cherry) or pea sized, light to dark pink and even red when ripe and pear shaped, round, egg shaped or slender. Most interestingly, the Riberry comes in both seeded and ‘seedless’ versions, often on the same plant.
The stately Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) can deliver up 20-30 kilos of cones per tree - or almost none at all (as happened this year). The ancient Bunya is a more stable species - variation in cone and nut size usually reflects the health of the tree rather than some genetic differentiation. However, if I were to be growing them commercially, I’d be scratching my head at the ‘nil harvest’ this year. Was it the spring rain or the low summer temperatures? Something to do with the ozone layer or simply part of a cycle?
In the west, sandalwoods are being grown for both their timber and, in the case of Santalum spicatum, a rather delicious nut . Here again, substantial variation in yield and nut quality can be found from tree to tree. To make this a commercial crop, some form of selection would seem necessary. There’s also a growing interest in the native yams - many of which are nutritious and good to eat but rather small. The hunt is on for a larger, hardier strain of wild yam.
Over the last few years, the industry has seen an increasing demand for the hardy little bush tomato (Solanum centrale) of the arid centre. These interesting fruit (which dry on the bush) have more uniformity in size and taste than many other species - but there have been seasons when conditions just ‘weren’t right’ and the harvest was minimal. In an established market, this can force prices up - in an emerging market such as bushfoods, it can simply make buyers wary of the product and less likely to rely on supply in seasons to come.
Time and money is certainly being spent on a few bushfood species. The well-known red Quandong, Warrigal greens, Davidson plum, Lemon scented myrtle, the Finger lime and wattle seed are all the subject of trials and selection. But these plants represent only a handful of the hundreds of native Australian foods which have potential.
If the industry’s to gain the market’s confidence, it certainly has to supply a reliable product which looks and tastes something like the product supplied the year before. The down-side of this selection process is a reduction in genetic diversity. If someone were to find the ‘perfect’ sandalwood tomorrow, that plant and its thousands of clones could become the industry standard. Why would you plant a tree of unknown performance when you could plant a tree guaranteed to give you what the market wants?
There is no easy answer to this philosophical question. Though mother nature herself is the world’s greatest ‘selector’, she thrives on diversity. It’s this very diversity which gives us those occasional ‘perfect’ foods we then replicate. By locking production into the genes of one plant, we lose all chance of breeding an ‘even more perfect’ plant. We also lose natures’ answer to pests (those plants with a natural resistance survive and thrive) and this can lead to chemical intervention to keep our perfect tree bearing.
There’s an even more basic issue involved in all this - where is the line between ‘bushfood’ and ‘commercial crop’ drawn? Are hydroponically grown Warrigal greens bushfood? Are cloned Quandongs? What of the wild lime/mandarin cross? If our plantation is based on tissue cultured stock, can we call it ‘bushfood’? Perhaps, as the flavouring people have done, we can call it ‘nature identical’.
And, when Australian bushfoods become internationally popular, what will we call the wild lime grown in Israel? We are already importing Eucalyptus oil from China - will the day come when we ‘buy back’ our native foods from entrepreneurial Asian producers? It’s not unthinkable - but if the scenario eventuates, we will have to think of a new name. Bushfoods ain’t bushfoods if they don’t come from the bush or somewhere near it.
Photos: Bush tomato, Riberry, Bunya, Warrigal Greens