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Getting a taste for our native plants

The Mercury
09jul06

There's food aplenty in a Tassie garden, as Simon Bevilacqua discovers
IF you got lost in Kris Schaffer's native garden, starving to death would not be an issue.

Many of the garden's plants are edible.

But you would have to know which ones to eat because some are poisonous, even deadly.

Kris's picturesque property at Fern Tree under Hobart's Mt Wellington is one of Tasmania's most established indigenous gardens. There are leaves you can eat, berries, flowers, roots and seeds. 

"There are many native plants in Tasmania which have edible portions such as fruits, berries, leaves, seeds, sap, flowers, pollen or tubers," Kris said. Kris, a member of the Australian Food Plant Study Group that was set up by the Society for Growing Australian Plants, began creating her garden about 20 years ago. Much of the knowledge about edible native plants in Tasmania was lost with British colonisation 200 years ago.

Tasmanian Aborigines had an extensive knowledge of the foods provided by the bush. "The Pallawa people developed over thousands of years a highly detailed culinary knowledge of what, where, when and how to find, harvest and prepare these plants to eat as well as use as medicines," Kris said. "Many were eaten fresh, some were roasted on coals, others baked on stones, and others stuffed into meat for flavouring. Some of that knowledge remains in the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Other tidbits of information were recorded by early settlers, including George Augustus Robinson, who in the 1830s was the only European capable of speaking to the Aborigines in their own tongue.

Kris has scoured history books, botanical books and even looked to mainland Australian Aboriginal customs to find clues about Tasmania's bush foods.

Many of the edible plants can be found easily in most parts of the state.

The much-maligned succulent pigface, which grows on and around most Tasmanian beaches, can be eaten.

The base of the flower when ripe tastes like a cross between kiwi fruit and raspberries.

  Even the finger-shaped leaves sometimes can be used in salads.

  Crouching among a gathering of dragon's heath, or Richea dracophylla, in her garden, Kris likes to suck the petals for their sweet pollen.

  She also likes to make jams and pies with native currant, or Coprosma quadrifida.

A small prickly bush, the female plants are laden with shiny orange berries in autumn.

"The silver eye finches will tell you when they are ripe," Kris said.

Climbing blueberries, or Billardiera longiflora, also make a nice jam but Kris finds them a little earthy to eat raw.

The common native cherry, or Exocarpus cupressiformis, provides a tasty treat.

"These handsome pine-like plants produce sweet, tiny red edible berries in summer," Kris said.

The base of the stalk of cutting grass (Gahnia grandis), which can be found near most beaches, is nice to chew on.

Kris likes to make damper using the herb-like leaves of Baeckea gunniana.

Lemon-scented boronia, or Baronia citriodora, also adds a tasty flavour to many dishes.

Kris said she knew of about 60 edible Tasmanian plants. But she warned anyone considering eating native plants be cautious.

Some plants are poisonous," she said.

"On some plants you can find both edible and poisonous bits.

  "At all times be cautious. It could be very unpleasant, or even worse, if an experiment failed."

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