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Bush Food Pioneering

By Alan and Elise Roberts

Listening to Peter Hardwick, the founding presidentof ARBIA, on the verandah of his bungalow facing Lillian Rock, you realize the depth and breadth of knowledge he has about bush foods.

For Peter it is important to recognise that we are rediscovering foods that were Aboriginal foods, even if undocumented, and that we who were born here have our own spiritual connection with the land.

After 200 years of colonial mentality and cultural cringe, a change in our relationship with the land and her fruits is part of the reconciliation process.

Finding a "new" bush food requires keen observation and developing a lasting relationship with the plant. For instance, Peter started observing Riberries in 1978, made various selections for flavour, texture, size etc, noted that some fruit were seedless and was on the lookout for a seedless tree. He found the seedless cultivae in 1982/83 (Lismore 1). It was yielding good flavour and texture. The tree observed over a number of years had consistent yield and fruit quality - a feature many Riberries lack. Surprisingly, many of the trees observed were in back yards.

The fruit was first introduced into the market place by Vic Cherikoff and Jean Paul Bruneteau in 1985.A chef, by the way is an essential ingredient for this kind of pioneering work - you should get yourself one at the outset. There may be a better Riberry out there or one may develop, so you should be on the lookout. Keep in mind all the required characteristics. The seedlessness advantage is in processing. The whole fruit gives jams and preserves a good appearance and texture and makes it cheap to process. But don't give up on the seeded varieties, they may be used in juices and icecream where the hard b lterered turered tut after blending. And the oil in the seed may enhance the flavour - this is yet to be determined.

Another example of the process involved with selection is the Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia Citriodora), whose leaves in the selection used are very potent sources of lemon grass oil (citral). Lemon grass itself has from .03% to 0.6% citral, while Lemon Myrtle has 1.7% to 3% citral. It is truly a spice plant. To find the best plant, essential oil tests were done at Wollongbar. Peter started work with the Lemon Myrtle in 1988 and it was in the market by 1991/92.

Some species can gain market acceptancevery fast. Peter gave Vic Cherikoff his first 6kg batch of Aniseed Myrtle in 1991/92 and now it is fully established in bush food breads.

Cinnamon Myrtle or Grey Myrtle (Backhousia Myrtifolia), awaits discovery of a selection with 0.5% to 1% oil (elamicin) in its leaf. The best so far is Ballina 1, with 0.3% elamicin. Another advantage of the essential oil test is that it can eliminate the necessity for toxicology tests, if it can be shown that the essential oil is the same as occurs in another food plant and is therefore safe. So here is your chance to find the "Up at my place 1" Cinnamon Myrtle.

Don't forget the plants on the ground, or all the non-culinary uses for plants. We sampled various native mints, at Peter's, with strong, exciting flavours. The pioneering approach is the same, though. Establish a rapport with your plant, form your own idea of its value, give it to the chef to play with, know its toxicology and make genetic selections from promising plants.

But how does a down-to-earth, anti-sensuality "we don't want this gourmet crap" farmer decide what and how to plant.

First, have a sensual experience. Go to Sydney and try everything on the menus of all the bush food restaurants. There might be one closer than Sydney. Know in yourself that the product you want to grow is good and has a market. Talk to anybody who knows about it. Make sure you have the right plant eg the right Lemon Ti-Tree is Leptospermum Liversidgei grown for its citral, but some people have grown Leptospermum Petersonii which has citronella and is unsuitable for human consumption.

On the North Coast we are lucky that many bush foods can be observed growing in the wild. Study their growing habits and see if you can emulate soil conditios and micro-climate. If the plants are from outside the area, Peter suggests starting with a trial plot of twenty plants - a viable breeding population, to see how they go.

You need to know not only that the plants will grow, but whether they will set fruit. For instance, some people are having problems with Atherton Almond. It needs good watering at nut set and may even need a specific insect pollinator.

In the wild Davidson's Plum is an understorey tree. It will flower and set fruit in the shade. Recent hot spring conditions have resulted in 25% loss of fruit due to sunburn on D.Plums grown in full sun. Peter suggests D. Plum would be a good understorey plant and would add a little diversity in Macadamia plantations. Try and shelter them from the midday sun and keep the irrigation on in the day in dry springs. There was poor flower set in the dry season of '94. D.Plum, Riberry and Lemon Myrtle seedlings have also been lost due to lack of water during establishment in their first dry spring.

When planning the planting, consider whehter you might use mechanical harvesting in the future and to what extent you can integrate plants to emulate an ecosystem. This could have future eco-tourism advantages. In the same way that the appreciation of food in the Provence and Thailand arose out of a farming culture, we could develop a name for a distinctive cuisine here.


There are currently thirteen processors and distributors of bush foods. It is worth checking them all. There is a transport advantage and maybe an identity advantage in working with local people.

"We want to be actively involved in the way the product is used. If it doesn't have a unique quality, if the flavour is not carried, that is of concern to us as growers."

It's a big step from pioneer to farmer to marketing and so too is the scope. At present there are 30 new crops developing, more to come, and with them a vehicle for carrying culture and perrhaps a reconciliation.

Readers' Comments

From: Bobby Noone bnoone@acenet.net.au
Date: Fri, 21 Feb 2003

thank you for some local knowledge of soil type and drought hardy bush food.. I am interested in native rosella and would think this would do well in your region too, do you have experience of this small tree.. Have been experimenting with Bunya Nuts in pesto and olive tapenade, yummy and Gnocchi...


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