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How to grow bush tucker plants by Trevor Cochrane
The West Australian Finger lime growing at Tass 1 Trees. Picture: Astrid Volzke

There's a strong movement among native-plant lovers to grow species that are traditional sources of food among Aboriginals.

There's a lot to love about these plants, which are in most cases tough enough to grow well in home gardens without needing too much extra work or resources to produce successfully.

Here are my recommendations based on the easiest varieties to start with.

The term native is a little deceptive so I've tried to break it down to plants that are endemic to our south-west corner of Australia and then others that are popular bush tucker varieties from other parts of the country.

Native citrus species, including finger limes and round limes


(Citrus australasicus and Citrus glauca)

Most of these are native to semi-arid and arid areas of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia and there are many references where early settlers relied on them to provide the zing to a gin and tonic on a hot afternoon.

The fruits are not only edible, they are attractive, with hybrids producing good-quality fruit. The flesh has a strong citrus flavor and is being used as a garnish in many up-market restaurants. The plants love full sun, a lack of love and will perform in most garden situations.

Quandong or native peach


(Santalum acuminatum) (WA)

This is a semi-parasitic tree with succulent bright red fruits that make for a tasty snack and can be made into jams and jellies.

The outer peel is removed to uncover a kernel which when cracked open reveals a nut, which can be roasted and eaten. The nut contains a high level of plant oil, which when used for moisturising the skin is said to have anti-ageing effects.

The pounded leaves were used to treat diseases introduced by European settlement by Aboriginals and have antibacterial and antifungal qualities.

Warrigal greens or spinach Tetragonia tetragonioides


(Eastern States and NZ)

A little debatable as a native as it is found commonly in New Zealand, this plant is a great ground cover. Once you have it the plant will self-seed in your garden, easily popping up in places and acting as a natural ground cover, reducing water demands in summer.

The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads but I believe it is best to boil them for 1-2 minutes before straining, because the leaves contain oxalic acid, which is bitter. They are good when used in a stir-fry or steamed but, again, soaking them for 60 minutes in a tub of water will take much of the bitterness out of the flavour.

This is probably the best bush tucker plant because it's so productive and so easy to grow.

Brush cherry or lilly pilly


(Syzygium australe) (Eastern States)

Another native to eastern Australia, it has succulent fruits with a dry crunchy texture and sweet flavour.

Aboriginals ate the fruit raw, as I did as a kid in my grandmother's garden and my boys do today.

My youngest son broke his arm trying to climb the cubbyhouse roof on a wet day to get his hands on a huge purple cluster of fruit.

European settlers originally made it into jam and wine.

Macadamia nut


(Macadamia integrifolia and tetraphylla (smooth shell macadamia andrough shell macadamia tree) (Eastern States)

Australia's only commercial native nut tree, macadamia is native to eastern Australia. Sadly the biggest production base in the world is in the South Pacific, with Hawaiians dominating production.

This tree is incredibly productive once established, with nuts eaten raw or roasted.

The macadamia is considered a superfood, with the nuts having a high energy and fat content. They are incredibly expensive and yet grow so simply here in a sunny position.

Lemon myrtle


(Backhousia citriodora) (Eastern States)

Sadly, this is not an easy tree to find in WA since our border is closed to species from the myrtaceae family to try to stop the spread of the dreaded myrtle rust disease into WA.

Not only is this plant one of the best bush foods, it is also a beautiful ornamental with its glossy green aromatic leaves and fluffy white flower heads.

While it is capable of growing into a small to medium-sized tree, it can be kept as a shrub through regular pruning of the growing tips. It also makes a great hedge.

Lemon myrtle is used for flavouring all sorts of dishes with its strong lemon flavour and works incredibly well with barramundi when steamed wrapped in the leaves.

Plant in a sunny spot with well-drained soil and feed regularly during the warmer months to give you plenty of shoot tips for harvest.

Midyim or pigeon berry


(Austromyrtus dulcis) (Eastern States)

This versatile small shrub is one of the best bush tucker plants of the lot.

The small but sweet-tasting berries that are borne in profusion in late summer and early autumn are speckled and oval shaped and look like little pigeon eggs - hence the European name.

It makes an attractive border, rockery or pot plant and can even be trimmed into a low- growing hedge.

It flowers in early summer and should be kept well fed and mulched after that to ensure a good harvest of berries. It's important to remember that native plants, particularly productive varieties, do well when pruned.

Coastal wattle


(Acacia cyclops) (WA)

The seeds of this plant are ground to make a kind of flour, which can be mixed with water and cooked as bread or a kind of biscuit.

It's one of those plants that attracts bardi grubs, which burrow in the stems as larvae. Aboriginals consider bardi grubs a nutritious food and a good source of protein and this plant's life cycle is critically affected by bardi grub interaction as the plant ages.

While you may not eat the grubs yourself you need to accept they are important and the plant important to them - so treatment with insecticides is not wise.

Jam wattle


(Acacia acuminata) (WA)

This is a plant whose seeds are ground for flour, which is mixed with water and cooked on hot coals to make bread cakes.

The jam wattle plant can play a far more important role in your bush tucker garden than the flowers and seed it provides. It's an important host to the parasitic quandong and sandalwood trees.

Blue berry ginger or native ginger


(Alpinia caerulea) (Eastern States)

Native to the rainforests of eastern Australia, its berries and stem tips are eaten. The white flesh and pulp inside has a pleasant slight ginger flavour.

Try using the leaves to wrap meat for cooking or steaming to get a subtle but strong ginger flavour.

TIP
Do not prepare bush tucker food without having been shown by indigenous or experienced persons. Some bush tucker (such as the zamia palm) can cause illness if eaten in large quantities or not prepared correctly.

WHERE TO BUY

Many of these species can be bought from Lullfitz Nursery, Zanthorrea Nursery, Wandilla Garden & Gift Centre and Tass 1 Trees. Some others will need to be ordered through mail order or online companies such as Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery, Garden Express or The Diggers Club. Seeds for some species are available from Zanthorrea Nursery and The Green Life Soil Company.