Our city has a food franchise chain you may not know of; native plants. They’re all around us right now, minding their own business, fruiting and flowering with joyous abandon. It’s an intoxicating thought that we can walk through our suburbs and snatch a handful of food whenever we choose, from a secret supermarket visible to those with the right kind of eyes.
With a knowledge of botany that extends little further than the spiny green whatsit, I am fortunate to have Paula Nihot of the Yugambeh Museum to guide me through the species that grow around Bundall’s Arts Centre.
“When I look at a plant, I’m looking for the four “F’s”; foliage, fruit, flower, and…fur,” she says this last one almost sheepishly.
“Bark,” she says, smiling. “I needed a fourth “F”. The thing with these plants is they don’t need intensive cultivation – this is their home, and all they need is to be left alone to do their thing.”
Let’s go shopping.
Bush ginger (Alpinia caerulea):
With its broad green leaves and bright blue fruit clustered companionably on their long stalk, this is a species even I can recognise.
“You can wrap food in the leaves, like a tortilla,” Paula says, “or crack the blue shell of the fruit and suck on it like confectionary, then spit it out.” The fruit is citric, as opposed to the root; peeling back the outer bark – or fur, if you like – reveals a pink flesh that smells unbelievably fresh and gingery. “Just use it as you would normal ginger, and it’s great for cooking, baking or making tea.”
Blue Flax Lily (Dianella congesta):
With the ginger behind us, and my scientia botanica exhausted, I’m entirely in Paula’s hands. Or, more accurately, her daughters’, who scamper into vegetation resembling Tina Turner’s mid-80’s hairstyle and emerge with bright blue berries in their hands. Often seen loitering with pigface and casuarinas, Blue Flax Lily differs from its salt-tolerant brethren in one crucial way.
“It only likes fresh water. When you see it you know there’s drinkable water underground,” she adds – important knowledge in this dry country. I sample a berry the size of a pea, and it tastes vaguely of grape.
Midyim Berry (Austromyrtus dulcis):
“This delicious fruit has more antioxidants than a blueberry, but since it’ sold as a hedge, it’s trimmed before it fruits,” Paula says ruefully. If only people knew they could be antioxidising with ruthless efficiency instead of wasting time with the shears and drinks that start with “Cran-”. Paula’s girls plunge into the undergrowth once more, as she tells me it is a sweet purple-white berry with a slightly eucalypt aftertaste, perfect for pie fillings and sauces.
Lilly Pilly (Syzgium luehmannii):
Lilly Pilly, like hipsters and Kardashians, are everywhere. There’s probably one within a few metres of you right now. The fruit is pink and tastes a bit like cranberry – like the Midyim, its uses are manifold.
“Combined with apple, it makes a delicious sauce for pork or game.” Paula also reduces it until it is a pink cordial that her girls take to school. Of course, it can be eaten straight from the bush, as can the flowers.
Council’s love of planting Grevillea in almost every spare public place is exceeded only by the Grevillia’s enthusiasm for growing there. The flowers, which vary from yellow to red, are the bit we – and the birds and bees – are after.
“There’s two ways to approach Grevillea. You can be greedy and pick the flower for yourself, or you can bang the flower on your hand, releasing the nectar, and lick your palm. This means it will be here tomorrow for the next traveller.” The nectar tastes a little like barley sugar, and it’s very hard to stop at one.
Lomandra (Lomandra longifolia):
Find Grevillea and you’ll usually find a cabal of Lomandra – the Simon to Grevillea’s Garfunkel. “We eat the base of the leaves, fruit and flowers, and the rest of the leaf is used for weaving,” Paula says.
A source of moisture, make sure you grasp the leaf at the base. Pulling from the top yields frustration and a cut hand from its razor-like edges. Nibble the white part at the base of the leaf, where it is most succulent – it tastes, well…plant-y.
Paperbark (melaleuca quinquenervia):
If, like me, you cut yourself on the Lomandra, then Paperbark provides a natural bandage…along with a lot of other uses; from nappies to something to write your phone number on. Aside from edible flowers, it’s a means in which to wrap food – wet the fur and put whatever you want to cook inside it. It adds a smoky flavour to meat and vegetables. It’s also an indicator of other food sources.
“When a paperbark with five longitudinal “veins” in the leaf flowers, it means the mullet are coming into the rivers.” So in theory, you could see the flowers, eat them, make a spear from a branch, go down to a river and spear a mullet, then cook it in the bark. Small wonder the tree was so popular with indigenous peoples – it’s a one-stop convenience shop.
Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia citrodora):
Of all the plants I tasted or fell into, lemon myrtle was the most startling. An unprepossessing tree, its leaves emit an astonishingly fresh lemon scent. “This plant has the highest citric content of any plant in the world,” Paula says, which makes it useful not just as a food additive, but in perfumes, household cleaning products and is an unparalleled cold remedy. It enhances shortbread recipes and combines with bush ginger to make a refreshing tea. “The tea can be tricky,” Paula warns. “Don’t let the leaves steep for longer than ten minutes or the oils start to release and it becomes bitter.”
There are many more munchable plants here on the Edible Coast, from the aniseed myrtle (a superb savoury addition to curries) to the beautifully sweet Davidson’s Plum. For a plethora of recipes go to: TasteAustralia.
Paula and the Yugambeh Museum are hosting a Native Food Grand Dinner at Dreamworld on October 23rd: for more information you can visit the Yugambeh Museum (open Wednesdays 10am-2pm), call 0738076155 or email email@example.com.
This story was originally published as a guest blog on ABC Open Gold Coast.
To read more or share your own local story, visit www.open.abc.net.au or contact Jeff Licence on 0427 216 114.
PHOTO CREDIT: Stryker Knight