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Growth Patterns in a Bushfood Plantation in Victoria

Elizabeth Blakeman 

The first plants in Mt Tara Bush Foods´┐Ż plantation were planted in 1995 and there have been plants added each year since. Twenty seven different species have been tried in various numbers (see footnote for names of species), but most have been abandoned, either because they died out or because they are too much trouble. An example of the former is the bush tomatoes, which all died out, and an example of the latter is the vanilla lilies, which survive all right, but the kikuyu grass is rampant amongst them, making them hard to care for and harvest. (And, in any case, who buys vanilla lily tubers?) Since 1997 the heights of all the main species, or in the case of muntries the width, have been measured each year in June, with the exception of the year 2000 when we were distracted! The following graphs show the rates of growth, the range of heights each year, and the average height of all plants. It is interesting to correlate this with the conditions under which the plants were growing. 


(1) In 1995 and '96 enthusiasm was high and the watering by drip and micro-sprays was done fairly conscientiously and Dynamic Lifter was added twice a year as fertilizer. After this the fertilizer has been added irregularly.


(2) On the other hand 1997 and '98 were drought years. For various reasons we ran out of water, and to an extent enthusiasm waned. The drought broke in 1998 with severe flooding. 


(3) We finally mulched the plants well in 2000, using reeds mown off other paddocks as part of our pasture improvement program. 


(4) In 1999 and 2000 we had heavy plagues of grasshoppers, so thick in the bush food paddock that they looked like a crawling layer of bark on the bushes, and they stripped many plants to about 5 leaves. No watering was done. Plants that were established in 1995, and which therefore had a fairly good start in life, such as the '95 cohort of lemon aspen, show steady, even growth. On the other hand, the lemon aspen planted in the drought, the '97 cohort, show a slower growth rate early on, and have never really caught up. At the 4th year the lucky '95 lot averaged 167 cms in height, the stressed '97 lot were 94cms, ie.73cms shorter. I believe the impact of the grasshopper plague also shows up as the range of heights, (or the splay of the graph) widens from 1999 onwards .(See particularly graph no 3, the '96 group.) The very sturdy plants, or perhaps those highest off the ground (out of easy each of grasshoppers) flourished, but the smaller, weaker ones were badly damaged. There was very uneven growth. The '95 cohort were not affected because they were taller and therefore out of reach, or so it appeared, though it could also be that they had by then developed some type of chemical repellent in their leaves which protected them. The same type of pattern show up in the riberrys. 

'95 cohort at 4 years averaged 97cms; the stressed '97 cohort averaged 44cms. Again the slope of the graph is steeper in the lucky group, showing faster growth rate. In fact, the effect of water early on in riberrys is very pronounced as the plants have not really grown at all over the years, presumably because they were not established well early on. Interestingly, the grasshoppers appear to have had no effect on the riberrys in the graphs, (including the '96 lot). There is not as marked a splaying, or range of heights, in '99 and '01 which is in keeping with real life. The grasshoppers hardly touched the riberrys.

The most notable feature of the lemon myrtle is the actual decline in average height of the plants the first year and then the slow growth rate thereafter, and the marked loss of plants (n from 23 to 13). There is a splaying of this graph after '99, which makes it look like grasshopper damage, but in fact the grasshoppers did not touch the lemon myrtle and I think it is just an indication of frost damage and inadequate water in already stressed plants. These are after all rainforest plants from Queensland. Sandpaper figs, (which in my opinion are pretty useless as food but then I have only males whose "fruits" are small, insipid and hairy) show a very steady and pleasing growth rate, in keeping with plants that had a good start, and were not attacked by grasshoppers, but they do show a splay, which I believe to be a measure of a stressed population of plants.. In their case I think it is lack of summer water, as they will drop their yellowing leaves in long hot periods.

The muntrie graphs are fascinating! Firstly it is necessary to note that the measurements relate to their width on the ground, not their height, as these a ground creepers.

Secondly it is necessary to note the growing conditions. The '95 group were planted into black-plastic covered, raised earth, rows. The plastic was supposed to inhibit weed growth, (which it did between plants but not around the plant itself) It also markedly raised the temperature of the earth in summer. The '98 group have been planted without black-plastic, but have been espaliered, and are being trained to grow along wire supports, like grapes do. In the '95 cohort, the loss has been high (n from 28 to 14) but in those that survived the growth rate is steepest of all species, and the splaying is greatest of all, possibly showing that the tough plants that survive are plants that were well established but are severely stressed.

Compare them to the '98 cohort where the growth rate is slower but the loss less, ie at the 3rd year the '95 group averaged a width of 173 cms here the '98 group averaged 45cms, but the number only dropped from 38 to 37). It is early days, but my impression is that the muntries do not "like" being spaliered.

The branches that I train upwards stop growing and a small branch left lying on the ground will start to shoot. It may also be that the wallabies have found them to be at the right height for browsing on, whereas they rarely touched the new growth on the ground branches. I also conjecture that the black-plastic heats the ground and stresses the plants. There have been many other muntries planted in the plastic, (which are not being measured so don't appear in these figures), but which have died. Black plastic is an unhealthy medium for most muntries, it appears to me, despite the growth rate in survivors.

What, if any, conclusions can be drawn from these measurements? I am aware that the numbers of plants are small, and the time span short, so any conclusions are tentative surmises.

I have decided that a healthy set of cuttings, planted in ideal circumstances, and fed and watered optimally, with no stressors would show a narrow range of sizes and no splaying and a steady growth rate.

It is interesting to work out percentage growths (not reported here) and assess which species have done well, and to look at the graphs TOGETHER with the plants and wonder about how the procedures you have applied have contributed to plant health.

It does appear that establishing plants is really important. If you have limited water supply, new plantings should take precedence. I may take up the irrigation system on established plants and put them along new plantings, to save money and water, which are both in short supply!

It may be that the splaying out of the graphs, or the big variation in heights, is a measure of stressed plants, but it may also be a measure of genetic variability. I think the muntries, lemon myrtle and riberrys were cuttings and therefore had the same genes, and the lemon aspens and sandpaper figs were seedlings and so would show genetic variability. Marked variability in cuttings, as opposed to seedlings, would be environmental, I assume. Lastly, the greatest interest will be comparing growth patterns in different environments, both natural and man made, to establish the optimum conditions for all the Australian Native Food species. It would be interesting to know whether 5 year old riberrys on a plantation in Queensland are 10 metres tall, for example, and whether conditions can be controlled here in East Gippsland so that plants here can equal that, or whether they will always be at an insurmountable disadvantage.

Elizabeth Blakeman

Footnote: Species grown at some time or another: Muntries, bush tomatoes, sweet appleberries, common appleberries, Leichart pears, sea celery, commelina, warrigal greens, Illawara plums, riberry, lemon aspen, sand fig, sandpaper fig, raspberry, quandong, lemon myrtle, mountain pepper, native guava, bulbine lily, vanilla lily, dianella lily, murnong diasy, river mint, round leaf mint, samphire, bunya pine, kurrajong.

Index: 18

From the Editor


Pharmaceutical properties of Qld Rainforest plants

Sunrise lime dieback

Toxicity results - 'all clear' 

North Coast Co-op 

Aboriginal use of Moreton Bay Chestnut 

Growth patterns in bushfoods

Lesser known species

Peak Body

Geijera sp

Back to the future

Native bees

Vale Denise Reason

Book Reviews


Dangerous Bush Tucker


Germination Trials

Emerging crops
























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· fresh (frozen),

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· whole,

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Delicious Tapas Oil:

Extra virgin olive oil, spiced with pepper leaf

Orders, pricelists and

information from Chris,


Ph: (03) 6278 1601,

Or: 0407 781 600

Possum Creek Bushfoods

For Sale

Lemon myrtle leaf

Davidson plum

Seedless riberry

Cut leaf mint

Finger lime

601 Friday Hut Rd

Possum Creek, Bangalow, NSW 2479 

Ph: 02 6687 1975

Lesser Known Species -- John Wrench

Native Basil

Ocimum tenuflorum. Sometimes called Native Thyme.

This is an arid zone plant occurring in northern Australia and found on the western Darling Downs etc. in Queensland. It is a small, untidy shrub, but unmistakably a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It is in the same genus as Basil, with a similar, gender fragrance.

Uses: as a flavouring herb in place of dried basil, thyme, marjoram.

Availability: as powdered, dried leaves.

Outlets: limited retail.

Cultivation:forget it, unless you live 1000km in the west.

Native Mintbush

Prostanthera ovalifolia, P. incisa and other species have a peppermint flavour.

Use fresh or dried.

Cultivation is easy, but prepare for dieback.

Probably in some commercial products labelled `Native Peppermint'.

P. ovalifolia adds a delightful flavour to ordinary tea, using either fresh or dry leaves (just a few).

Native Mints

Mentha species from several zones

(M. australis, M. diernenica (= M. gracilis), M. laxiflora, M satureioides)

These are closely related to the traditional European mints, both botanically and in the aromatic oils responsible for the smell and flavour.

Uses: as flavouring herbs instead of other mints, either fresh or dried.

Plants are available from specialist native plant nurseries — another reason for attending Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP) plant sales.

Scrambling Lily

Geitonoplesium cymosum

Family Philesiaceae

This plant is very common in a variety of moist situations. It may be found near the coast, in Eucalypt forests, on creek banks and, at its best, on the slopes of mountains.

The edible parts are the new shoots produced, either as spears from the rootstock or as new shoots from advancing or pruned stems. Even young, unthickened leaves are edible. The shoots are succulent and free of fibre, with a taste resembling both snow pea and asparagus. N.B. Eat it raw.

It can be cultivated in various situations, even full sun, or on a trellis, but requires compost, mulching and good moisture (+ pruning).


1. Dig seedlings out of the garden/nursery pots, the seeds having been voided by birds.

2. Plant the seeds separated from the small black fruits.

3. Strike cuttings of firm, fibrous stems (or small wreaths)

At Huxtable Park, it can be seen flourishing in full sun in indifferent soil, without support.

As a bonus, it produces cymes of sweetly-scented flowers, followed by small black berries, from which the seeds are spread by birds.

It is an ideal subject for a native/permaculture garden.

Strong flavours demand careful, restrained use. Some medicinal uses.

Availability: fresh from garden.

Dried, powdered — several commercial products.

Outlets: limited retail.

Cultivation: possible in home garden given appropriate conditions.






Ocimum tenuflorium - from

Traditional Aboriginal Medicines 




Prostranthera ovalifolia -

photo John Wrench




Geitonoplesium cymosum

Photo John Wrench