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Summary of full report

Cultivation and sustainable wild harvest of bushfoods by Aboriginal Communities in Central Australia

by Geoff Miers

July 2004

RIRDC Web-only  ||  Publication No W03/124  ||  RIRDC Project No CLC-1A

Executive Summary

Interest in the cultivation and wild harvesting of Australian native foods has increased significantly over recent years, particularly so over the past decade. This increased interest has corresponded with the development of a concept of Australian cuisine, a growing awareness of the value of native foods based on Aboriginal knowledge, and a scientific understanding of the value of the genetic purity of Australian species.


Over 140 species of native food plants are today or have been utilised by Aboriginal people of Central Australia with a range of these plant species having potential value as a marketable food source for the broader Australian and international populations.

Various interest groups from those wishing to diversify farm production through to groups wishing to establish small enterprises in remote communities, where economic opportunities are limited and employment prospects are low, are increasingly developing an awareness of the potential of Australian native foods.

Australian food producing plant species have a long demonstrated usage by Aboriginal communities, this potential often largely unrealised by the broader Australian community. The potential exists for both the production horticulture and wild harvest industries to co-exist and play a significant role in the evolution an Australian native foods industry.

The wild harvest industry in Central Australia currently has an important role in the wattle seed and bush tomato industry with at least six tonne of Solanum centrale and over seven tonne of acacia seeds being wild harvested in 2002-2003.

By developing improved cultivars and cultivating specific species the scope for a greater range of plant foods, improved quality and increased reliability becomes possible with the production horticulture industry entering the arena of native foods in Central Australia.

Interest commercially exists for a range of currently identified Australian native foods. The commercial potential for these and other species rests very much with the need for further research and development and the necessity to cultivate improved genotypes and improve management practices and handling, transport and production costs.

Consumer education, improved quality of product, reduction of production costs, and developing marketing potential all are necessary to increase the production potential.

This study has centred around developing a trial Australian native foods garden enterprise on Pantharrpilenhe, a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia. Underlying this trial the focus has been on:-

  • establishing the necessary infrastructure for the enterprise;
  • providing necessary and appropriate horticultural training to ensure long term sustainability and independence;
  • exploring and developing techniques and management methods appropriate for an arid climate;
  • developing species specific management tools and treatments;
  • monitoring native food plants of Central Australia with a view to providing a stronger platform for the selection of species and particular cultivars, and with a view to furthering the potential of the wild harvesting industry;
  • selecting propagation material and developing propagation techniques with a view to improving plant yields and quality of product.

Twenty native food producing species, fourteen of which are found on Pantharrpilenhe and six in immediate hinterlands within the region, underlie this report. Species selection was based on plant varieties having an established farmgate value, species currently wild harvested in Central Australia and native foods thought to have potential within the Australian native foods industry.

Species ranged from bush tomato and wattle seed through to native bananas, cucumber, onions and potato to wild plums, wild passionfruit and wild oranges.

Within the designated timeframe of nine months much of the focus of the project has centred around the establishment of the production horticulture enterprise.

Establishment issues highlighted included:-

  • the importance of maintaining strong community support,
  • the necessity for appropriate training and development,
  • the need for linkages and continued long term coordinated support from existing agencies and related issues of ongoing funding, technical advice, etc,
  • the development of a clear working plan,
  • site selection,
  • water availability and quality, and,
  • the lack of availability of native food plant species cultivated in local nurseries.

A one hectare horticultural block at Pantharrpilenhe was identified, a future development plan drawn up and the area was subsequently fenced, fully serviced and planted out with a variety of Central Australian native food producing species.

Limited numbers of Santalum spictatum, the Western Australian sandalwood, were also included.

While not identified as a native food species no trials of this valuable exportable crop have been undertaken in Central Australia.

The native food species endemic to Pantharrpilenhe that were trialed included:- Acacia victoriae, Capparis spinosa ssp. nummularia, Cucumis melo sssp. agrestis, Cyperus bulbosus, Marsdenia australis, Rhyncharrhena linearis, Solanum centrale and Ipomoea costata, Ipomoea polpha, Santalum acuminatum and Solanum chippendalei were the four main non-endemic species to Pantharrpilenhe that were included in the trial. Other species endemic and non-endemic to the region have been cultivated for inclusion and a variety of other species have been monitored in their natural habitats within the region. In total 21 species are being currently cultivated or monitored.


Based on information gathered from within the horticultural block and from monitoring of species within the region plant profiles have been developed. These profiles are categorised under the headings, description of the species, ecology, plant uses, propagation notes, cultivation notes, yields and economic opportunities.

There is a distinct lack of definitive information on native food producing species from Central Australia with particular respect to species behaviour under cultivation. There exists a need for more data collection and research to be undertaken to provide complete plant profiles to assist with the future development of the Australian native food industry, certainly from a production horticultural perspective.


These plant profile notes should equally be relevant in assisting the wild harvest industry.

An initial principal objective of this research project was to increase opportunities for Aboriginal communities in Central Australia to benefit from involvement in bushfood industries by developing effective and reliable systems for cultivating selected bushfood species and harvesting, handling, transporting and storing their produce.


From the establishment of the trial at Pantharrpilenhe a model for future enterprises on Aboriginal communities has evolved. This model needs to be further explored and developed into a user friendly package that is easily understood, provides step by step guidelines and relevant information related to service provision, funding, training, technical assistance and marketing opportunities.

With sustained research the opportunity exists for the development of an “Australian Native Foods Information Kit.” With reference to this research project the information would be specific to plant species from Central Australia.

The development and packaging of this information kit would rely on the further development of the Pantharrpilenhe trial project and the need to develop collaborative links with others working in the field of Central Australian native foods.

The kit would serve to be both comprehensive while being practical and would serve to provide valuable information sought after by communities interested in establishing native food enterprises and by current producers of these horticultural commodities

Any such kit would include a check list or step by step process of how to establish a production horticulture native foods enterprise, funding and support services, a species list with information on yields and returns, establishment costs, management techniques and tools, key issues within the industry, potential problems and solutions and a list of all industry organisations, support services, funding bodies, product suppliers and relevant references

The species selection for this trial research project has been based on native foods currently recognised and being marketed and those considered to have potential within the industry.

Working with and consulting with Aboriginal people in Central Australia who for centuries have recognised and utilised a diverse range of plant species for a variety of purposes, the undeveloped potential appears considerable. Listening to and respecting the notable contributions made by people like Peter Latz, Rod Horner and Arpad Kalotas, and, liasing with product suppliers there appears to be considerable scope to expand the current range of Central Australian native foods being wild harvested or commercial cultivated.

In the wattle seed industry most attention is currently paid to Acacia victoriae while Ac. colei, Accoriacea subsp sericophylla and Ac. murrayana all are highly productive species considered to have a big potential in the wattle seed industry.

Similarly while the focus has been on Solanum centrale other solanum species have potential both within and outside the condiment and sauce industries. Solanum chippendalei for example is a pleasant tasting species possibly suitable for the glazed fruit industry and as a delicacy for the restaurant trade. It’s fruit is also large, almost the size of an apricot. Similarly Solanum cleistogamum, the sweetest of all the solanums, has various potential marketing opportunities.

The need to develop improved cultivars and explore a range of marketing opportunities exists with both recognised native food species and the currently little known species.

Research into the development of new cultivars needs further to be supported by the confirmation of appropriate management techniques and tools to improve quality, yields and to reduce production or more specifically harvesting costs.

Much has been written about the potential yields available from specific native foods of Central Australia. Much of this information is based on figures either relevant to wild harvesting or to particular species cultivated outside Central Australia.

While this report sheds some preliminary light on production yields in the first year of establishment, with particular reference to Solanum centrale and Cucumis melo ssp. agrestis, continued research is required to confirm actual yields on one, two, three and four year old plants and on the influence various watering and fertilising treatments may have on increasing annual yields and being able to induce repeat cropping over a season.

Issues of trellising specific species, companion planting, cultivating crops on natural stands, monitoring climatic factors, factors affecting fruiting and innovative low technology harvesting techniques are all areas requiring further research.

The issue of water management is an issue Australia wide. Much can be gained by exploring the potential benefits of water harvesting, an underlying management technique adopted and incorporated into the Pantharrpilenhe project. The development and efficient management of low pressure irrigation techniques also adopted needs further promotion and understanding within the horticulture industry.

The Pantharrpilenhe “bush tucker” project has provided the opportunity for an Aboriginal community in Central Australia to play an important research role in the emerging Australian native foods industry.

In reality the Australian bushfood industry is largely based on traditional knowledge, however it would appear that few Central Australian Aboriginal people have or are benefiting from the opportunities emerging with the development of this industry. People gaining benefits are largely confined to the area of wild harvesting.

It is hoped that from this research project the people behind the Pantharrpilenhe project and other Aboriginal communities in Central Australia can embrace and become important components of the Australian native foods industry. With increased opportunities built on aboriginal involvement in the establishment and development of the Australian native foods industry it is hoped that increased recognition, employment opportunities and income generation are realised.

While there is some speculation as to the full potential of the native foods industry, specifically to the potential of the current main food species generated from Central Australian species, it is not unrealistic to assume over the next decade that demand will increase significantly particularly as further marketing opportunities are explored and community awareness of the value of “bush foods” is promoted.

With the potential to bring new species and improved cultivars into production, improved efficiency of production and quality of produce, increased marketing and the development of a coordinated approach to production and collection the potential for expansion of the industry is considerable. The doubling or tripling of volume and value of production is deemed conservatively quite achievable within the short term in the Central Australian context.

Centralian College as the current principal research consultant of the “Cultivation and Sustainable Wild Harvest of Bushfoods by Aboriginal Communities in Central Australia” project has been involved with the project for nine months only. Reference should now be made to the revised objectives schedule.