For many, the word ‘bushfoods’ conjures up small wriggly things which are best left where they are. A walk through bushlands or scrub can be no more enlightening - lots of plants, but where’s the food?
I have often been amazed at the ability of the original inhabitants to live - and live well - in arid lands and rainforest, wallum scrub and alpine valley. Part of the secret of their success lay in the incredibly wide range of plants they utilised as food. Some of these plants gave very little in the way of nutrient, some required extensive processing to remove toxins - taken as a whole, this ‘menu from nature’ gave them a more rounded diet than most of us enjoy today.
Survival aside, bushfoods offer the gardener - and the diner - a glorious range of options. They may never replace the vegie patch or the orchard, but they can lend beauty, utility and interest to any backyard. With a little work and imagination, they can also add unique, intriguing flavours to any meal. Bushfoods have another great attribute - they can be grown in any garden, anywhere in Australia. There’s not a region in the country which doesn’t have a range of wild food plants.
Though this article looks at sub-tropical species, it could just as easily focus on temperate, arid or coastal edibles. No region has a monopoly on our bushfoods.
As urban and suburban gardens often have space restrictions, we’ll by-pass the large trees and less well behaved scramblers and vines and look at those plants which are marked by both landscaping and eating properties. Starting at ground level, our Native violet (Viola hederacae) is a delightful, reasonably hardy and fast-growing ground cover with attractive purple flowers nearly year-round. You’d hardly build a meal around them but the flowers make a delightful garnish for salads, quiche or even sweets. Though I’ve seen them survive in some pretty rugged terrain, they prefer semi shade and reasonably moist conditions. Given these, they will form a dense, spreading mat.
If you have some really moist areas with dappled or very little sun, Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides) will keep the ground covered - and your table laden! This native has a confusing array of names - New Zealand spinach, Native spinach and, sometimes simply ‘Tetragon’. I don’t know how or when the New Zealanders laid claim to it, it’s definitely an Australian native. To confuse matters further, samples sent to France back in the last century were so well accepted that this plant became almost a staple winter green there. Certainly, French chefs and gardeners would be more familiar with it than we are here.
This is a vigorous scrambler with attractive and very distinctive tetragon-shaped leaves. The better the conditions, the thicker and greener the leaf and the larger the harvest. There are two warnings with this plant - the leaf must be boiled before eating and it’s suggested that the water is thrown out (though I’ve heard the water makes a great stain remover). Also - left to its own devices it will scramble and continue to scramble till it hits an immovable object or too much sun. Keeping it under control’s not difficult and, if you want to make harvesting easier, a small trellis, low fence or even wire supports will enable the plant to scramble up off the ground. The leaf is, as the name implies, a substitute for spinach. Or, perhaps, English spinach is a substitute for our own, easy to grow variety. The tastes are very similar and the dishes you might make with it identical.
As I live on a sloping block, there are some areas which simply need a hardy plant to compete with our local weed, the rampant Mistflower. In most cases, I’ve chosen Mat rush or Lomandra (Lomandra longifolia or L. hystrix). I’m surprised this species hasn’t been used more extensively in commercial landscaping as its tufty grass-like shape and dramatic flower bracts are ideal for setting off an otherwise bland area. It can reach a metre or more in height and width and will grow in shade, full sun and anything in between. The long and very strong leaves were used by Aborigines to make their dillies and the young leaf bases were nibbled. I have tried them and must confess that this is one of those bushfoods which might be classified as ‘You’ve got to be hungry.’ Nevertheless, this hardy plant is an ideal addition to almost any garden.
I will admit to having a great fondness for the tart fruit of the Lilly Pilly (Syzygium species). There are over 64 native Syzygiums to choose from and the most common (S. australe, S. fibrosum, S. Luehmannii) all share the beautiful trait of a coppery-pink flush to new growth. These three are small to medium trees which fit well into average sized gardens. If you’re pushed for space, there is now a dwarf ‘Mini Pilly’ which remains shrub-sized and appears to carry the glorious leaf colouring almost year round. My little specimen gave me three fruit in its second year and I look forward to a ‘mini feast’ in the years to come. The Lilly pillies make an ornamental wind-break and I have seen them pruned to form a hedge, though this drastically reduces the fruit you will harvest. They can be topped when they reach 2-3m to encourage side growth and easier picking or you can simply let them grow untouched and enjoy their compact, often rounded habit.
There are literally hundreds of wild foods to be found in the sub-tropics, certainly too many to cover in a short article. When you’re next in a nursery, look for Midyim berry (Austromyrtus dulcis), Mountain pepper (Tasmannia insipida), Native ginger (Alpinea caerulea) or Davidson plum (Davidsonia spp) - if your local nursery hasn’t heard of them - let them know what they’re missing out on!