Australian bush foods

In our recent trip through Broken Hill, Flinders’ Ranges, along the Birdsville track to Innamincka, Tibooburra and back to Broken Hill, we were lucky to see the desert in flower. In the last 2-3 years major floods in Queensland have fed water through the Channel Country in central Australia into the Lake Eyre Basin. The desert is in bloom, and the birds and beasts flourishing.


Similar weather conditions occurred in the 1860-70s, when vast cattle stations were established in Central Australia, only to be abandoned in the severe drought of the 1890s. They say out there that they don't have 4 seasons in a year, but seasons that last for 7-10 years, with alternating floods and droughts.


Indigenous Australians survived here for thousands of years by adapting to the 'seasons' and moving with the water and food supplies. All those people were living off the land. What did they eat before Europeans arrived? We sampled quandong, saltbush and Warragul greens. Here are some delicious examples of native foods from the Bushfood website. 



Lilly Pilly (native cherry)

Lilly pillies (Syzygium australe) are evergreen small trees with glossy green leaves. In spring to early summer they have fluffy white flowers followed by long lasting red or purple berries.These pear-shaped berries, known as a Riberry, growing to 13 mm long, covering a single seed, 4 mm in diameter.

The berry is soft, has a tart, cranberry-like flavour and a hint of cloves. It is popular as a gourmet bush food and is commercially cultivated on a small scale. The fruit is used to make a distinctively flavoured jam, and also used in sauces, syrups and confectionery. 


Quandong (wild peach)

Quandong, quandang or quondong (Santalum acuminatum ) is a small desert tree up, growing as a symbiot, using the root system of other trees. The flowers form in late summer and fruit is ready for harvest in early spring.

The shiny, bright scarlet fruit is about 2cm in diameter and contains one large nut or kernel, which is sometimes only marginally smaller than the fruit.Quandongs are an important traditional aboriginal fruit. Although somewhat tart, it is highly nutritious and contains twice the vitamin C of an orange. The Quandong fruit features heavily in aboriginal mythology across all the desert regions of Australia.


The kernel is also very nutritious but indigenous Australians tended to use this mainly for medicinal purposes. The seed  contains highly flammable oils, like a candlenut, so it can be burnt as a source of light. The wood is also oily, useful for starting a fire as a friction stick and is used as an aromatic source of smoke in Aboriginal smoking ceremonies. 

Medicinal uses of the Quandong include tea, made from the dried fruit and leaves, used as a purgative, an infusion of the ground tree roots used to treat of rheumatism, a paste of the crushed leaves used as an ointment for skin sores and boils and oil from the seed kernel, used to treat dry skin and as hair oil.

Quandong pie with cream and ice cream is delicious, as are scones with Quandong jam and cream.

Macadamia Nut

Macadamia Trees are native to eastern Australia (seven species). Macadamia integrifolia and Macadamia tetraphylla the only commercial nut producers.

They are small to large evergreen trees growing to 2–12 m tall. The leaves are 6–30. cm long and 2–13 cm broad, with an entire or spiny-serrated margin. The flowers are white to pink or purple. The fruit (nut) is encased in a very hard shell. Macadamia Oil is a golden coloured gourmet oil with the nutty sweet taste of Macadamia nuts and is regarded as one of the healthiest edible oils in the world.Being cold pressed, it contains no additives and has not lost any of its nutritional values.

Macadamia oil tolerates high temperatures with a smoke point above 200 C and a flash point at 252 C.The nutty, sweet aroma enhances natural food flavours. It is used in salad dressings, stir-fries, baking and pan-frying.It is a delicious dipping oil or serve with your favourite bread.


Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) is a familiar sight over large areas of dry inland Australia. It is a sprawling grey-blue shrub, up to 3 metres high and sometimes spreading to 5 metres wide. It is a long living plant, growing strongly after periods of summer rain, producing long tassels of flowering seed heads. Indigenous Australians mostly collected the minute saltbush seeds to grind and roast for damper.

A special selection of Old Man Saltbush has been developed by Outback Pride’s Mike Quarmby for the gourmet food industry. Mike undertook a lengthy journey to find natural stands of Saltbush that had been protected from overgrazing and established selection trial plots, with the end result being a much improved saltbush form, quite different in flavour to the hard grown wild plant. When grown in hot house conditions, it provides a large leafed vegetable, with a natural range of mineral salts, antioxidants, calcium and 27% crude protein.

The large fresh or blanched Saltbush leaves can be used as a wrap around for meat or fish, in salads or as a leafy bed for grilled meat or vegetables. The dried Saltbush flakes are a wonderful addition to bread, grills, pasta and as a pot herb.


Native Spinach/Warragul Greens

 Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides) is a native to Australia and NZ. A perennial plant, it grows to a height of 0.3m with a spread of 1 m. The stems are trailing, branching and succulent, the leaves are green and fleshy, the flowers are small, yellow and daisy-like. Native spinach is a warm season alternative to regular spinach that does well in hot, dry conditions. European spinach goes to seed and becomes bitter during warm summer months. Native spinach is valued because of its high vitamin A, vitamin B2 and vitamin C. It is recommended that the leaves be blanched for 3 minutes, the water disposed of, and then greens refreshed in iced water before consuming. However, it can be used raw in a salad green. 


Wild Rosella

It's not just a brightly coloured parrot! Wild rosella (Hibiscus sabdariffa) typically grows in the most north parts of Australia from Cairns in the east through to Broome in the west.

The petals can be used for making jellies and dessert garnishes. They have a tart flavour with a raspberry/rhubarb/plum quality.Most commonly known for its use in champagne, it works well in either sweet or savoury dishes and goes well with ginger, chilli, sugar and fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, nectarines and bananas.

A fabulous accompaniment for lamb, pork and game, use it in sauces, jams, ice cream and pastries.



Nardoo is an aquatic fern, resembling a four-leaf clover. The nardoo at Cooper Creek is Marsilea drummondii. The spores of the plant are contained in a small, hard sporocarp, which is the part eaten by Aborigines (not the leaves). The sporocarp is ground to a flour and then mixed with a little water to form dough which is then cooked in the ashes, or it is mixed with a larger quantity of water and drunk as a thin porridge or gruel. 


Did Burke and Wills die because they ate nardoo?

"In August 1860, thousands of people turned up to farewell the Victorian Exploring Expedition, later known as the Burke and Wills Expedition, with great pomp and ceremony. Over the next nine months, the expedition travelled north in stages from Melbourne to Menindie, Menindie to Cooper’s Creek, Cooper’s Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and back to Cooper’s Creek. Along the way excess supplies were discarded, enemies created, opportunities overlooked and many lives lost" .

The aim of the expedition was to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres (approximately 2,000 miles). At that time most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-indigenous people and was completely unknown to the European settlers.

The south-north leg was successfully completed, but owing to poor leadership and bad luck, both of the expedition's leaders died on the return journey. Altogether, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Wills_expedition


Burke and Wills may have died from vitamin B1 deficiency, as Nardoo flour contains a toxic compound that inhibits uptake of vitamin B1.  The local people knew to soak nardoo sporocarps to remove this compound prior to preparing flour or porridge. Imitating the locals, Burke and Wills may not have ben aware of the importance of this washing and omitted it during the preparation of their food. Certainly Wills’ diary suggests both vitamin B1 and B12 deficiently, with symptoms of leg pains and weakness, and a restricted diet also lacking in Vitamin C and protein.

'After 6 June 1861 nardoo became their sole source of food. Wills and King collected around 2kg of sporocarps a day and Burke cleaned the stalks from the sporocarps and ground them into flour. By 10 June Wills was too weak to collect nardoo, and he took over the responsibility of grinding while Burke and King harvested the sporocarps. Four days later, Burke became too weak to go out to harvest, and the task of feeding the three men fell on King.

By the 20 June Wills wrote, 'I cannot understand this Nardu at all it certainly will not agree with me in any form. We are now reduced to it alone and we manage to get from four to five pounds per day between us. The stools it causes are enormous and seem greatly to exceed the quantity of bread consumed and is very slightly altered in appearance from what it was when eaten.' Nevertheless Wills thought 'starvation on nardu is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction.'

Burke and Wills died during the last few days of June or the first few days of July 1861.”    

It seems Burke and Wills died of malnutrition and exhaustion having failed to understand and accept help from the local people. King lived on with the local tribes for a year, until found by Brahe’s party .

Seeing the Cooper creek this year, in weather conditions similar to 1860-61, full of fish, bird and plant life, with Nardoo and Warragul greens growing all along the creek, it seems these Europeans died in a land of plenty, having failed to adapt to local conditions.





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