Bush foods or ‘bush tuckers‘ are a long list of native Australian edible fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts that are delicious, nutritious, water saving and environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, they are very little known to the Australian public and very few are commercialized.
The Aboriginal people of Australia thrived thanks to the abundance of native food for 40 000 years so it is an important part of their culture and history and an essential part of the Australia’s ecosystems. There are more than 5,000 different species of bush tucker but most Australians would struggle to name one and as a consequence, some of them are endangered. Planting bush tuckers in Australia helps to ensure their survival and the native animals that depend on them.
Bush Tuckers, a new experience for the senses
The Balaangala bush tucker garden at the Gap near Brisbane looks like the Australian countryside after the rain, completely different from a conventional veggie garden. A painted wooden board at the entry acknowledges the custodians of this part of the country, the Yuggera and the Turrabul people.
The shapes and textures of the plants look almost scary. Armed with spikes or indented leaves, they must protect wonders. As you come closer, those weird looking scrubs bear beautiful berries and flowers. All kind of berries lie around, the wombat, the quinine and the midyim berries, all edible. On the right across the garden is an odd looking tree with a rough trunk and thick grasses on the top looking like a bad haircut. Melinda Serico, an Indigenous Australian from the Gubbi Gubbi people that volunteer at the garden says, “It is a grass tree, a special tree”. Aboriginals used it to build tools using the spiky sticks of its hair and the strong glue of its trunk.
Behind the grass tree, a little path of dead leaves reveals a huge and luscious spiky bush bearing lots of red fruits. “It is a native raspberry, our favourite one because we always get a good feed out of it,” says Melinda. On the sides of the track is a native ginger, a peanut tree, a native apricot and even a native grape, all bush tuckers. They may sound familiar but they taste and look different. A little further, a sandpaper tree, Melinda’s favourite because it is a good source of potassium. “With my liver problem I have to have a lot of potassium”, she says. Apart from producing a delicious fruit, it has medicinal and practical uses. The rough leaves and the bark are a treatment for flue, fevers, warts and diarrhoea and were even used to build ropes and nets.
The vegetation shrinks; the track stop and the wind bring the sweet and spicy smell of a cinnamon myrtle and then the sharp and fresh sent of a lemon myrtle. What an experience for the senses! This garden looks smells, sounds and feels unique. You don’t expect edible fruits or even vegetables growing in this rocky place. Yet, an amazing variety of food and flowers grows here and beautiful birds and butterflies made it their home.
Bush tuckers are probably already in your garden and around your neighbourhood. Melinda says, “We would be walking through town, stopping and picking berries off the Lilly Pillies and people would be looking saying, that’s poisonous! No it’s not we’d say”.
Louise Brennan, a teacher at Bald Hill School in Queensland built a native garden in to explain to children during history class that if the first settlers had taken the time to listen to the Aborigines, they wouldn’t have starved to death. Last year flood devastated the garden and it is just starting up again. Brennan says floods and fires are actually essential to certain bush foods. “The soil is more fertile after a flood because of the sediments deposited and there is more moisture in the ground” says Louise.
Bush Tuckers are very healthy
Research shows that Bush tuckers could be among the healthiest food in the world. Dr Isabel Konczac, leader of the research on the health benefits of bush foods at Food Science Australia says that Bush Tuckers contain high amounts of vitamin C, trace elements, antioxidants and proteins. “The native Illawarra plum is three times stronger in anti-oxidant activity than our sample of blueberries” says Isabel. She explains that plants produce anti-oxidants when exposed to stress due to extreme weather, which enable them to survive and god knows Australia has an unforgiving weather!
Cooking with Bush Tuckers
Bush tuckers are intense in flavour and bring new and unique aromas to all meals but they are sometimes a little bit tricky to process and too intense to eat it whole and raw. Bryant Wells from Tukka restaurant in Brisbane says, “A lot of ingredients are hard to learn how to use because you have to do certain things to them to get the proper flavour out and a lot of the berries are very tart and the spices earthy”. There are now a lot of spices readily available in supermarkets like the Wattle seeds, which have a coffee, chocolate and hazelnuts flavour. Though, many fruits and berries are sweet and delicious eaten straight out of the tree as well, like the midyim berry or the native raspberry.
Bush tuckers can be toxic. Some should only be eaten after cooking or specific preparations and others are toxic only in certain seasons. Louise recently found a beautiful ground cover that look like a wild native strawberry growing out of nowhere in her garden. A deep red and juicy fruit that would make anybody salivate but “don’t judge a book by its cover”, this innocent little wonder might be more like the red apple in Snow White. Louise sent a picture to a herbarium to identify it. “Don’t dare try them, if you don’t know what they are,” she says.
Growing Bush Tuckers
Bush food gardens require less work than ordinary ones but they still need a little pruning and watering. This is especially important when the plants are young; so don’t believe in the myth of maintenance-free gardens. Once established the plants need little maintenance but respond well to care and attention. “If you leave them they won’t die off but if you want to produce more you have to look after them” says Wells. Water is a scarce resource and native plants conserve and use it in the most efficient way. Brennan says, “We water once when we first plant them, that’s it”. The good news is that in the bush food garden, weeding and digging are not needed, as native plants don’t like to have their roots disturbed. Don’t move dead branches or leaves either, as they will provide shelter for animals and food for seedlings. The only thing you should do is mulching because it helps to retain moisture, stops foreign weeds and provides fertiliser.
Let’s celebrate and protect Australia’s unique ecosystem. Growing and eating bush tuckers are an effective way to restore native habitat and preserve the animals that depends from it. Please share tips and info on where to find Australian native plants, how and what to grow where.
Mitchell, R., ‘Why we should commercialise and cultivate native plants’.