Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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Home Issue 41 The queen of desert fruit

The queen of desert fruit

By Dr FIONA WALSH

Quandongs are one of the first bush foods my Mum gave me. When a skinny kid I met the skinny trees.

My mum grew up eating Quandongs on ‘Murrum’, a sheep station in the Murchison, Western Australia. We were on Badimaya country but my family rarely spoke about Aboriginal people and the dark past.

Instead, we’d park the ute under laden trees, pick the bush foods and take them back to the homestead.

Mum, my aunt and others would make pies, jams and more. “Yum, more please Mum!”

Twenty or so years later, I met the trees, Jawirli, on Martu country. Sadly, camels have since ravaged those trees. But artists like Martu woman Noreena Kadibil keep them alive in memories embedded in their paintings.

On Arrernte country, the fruit are called Pmerlpe. In 2010 when my family bought a house in Alice Springs, the mature Quandong trees were one asset in the purchase. They were also one of the few things growing in a barren garden. They’re fickle plants but overall, they continue to thrive.

Quandongs are the queen of desert fruit. Their red skins can be eaten fresh, cooked and/or soaked to reconstitute if dry. The fruit is tart and delicious simmered with sugar or local dates. Each August – September they ripen so as their baubles glow.

Elsewhere, the nuts are used for necklaces and the kernel as a hair conditioner and/or rubbing medicine. The soft malleable timber was prized by desert woodcarvers. But, due to compound threats on plant populations, Maruku Arts have banned buying the timber.

I used to give the nuts away. But now it seems the seeds are too precious to destroy the chance for seedlings.

Camels eat Quandongs as if they were ice-cream. In the NT, Santalum acuminatum is listed as a vulnerable species. This classification should extend to WA and SA desert regions where the impacts of camels, wildfires, rabbits and other factors mean the trees are rarely seen.

Quandongs were traded huge distances by Aboriginal people (and still are). They’re another of the desert species that have been selected, transported, protected and nurtured by desert people, probably for generations. Thus, they are partly domesticated by the ancestors. The fruit would have had major Jukurrpa sites and storylines. Who has recorded these treasure troves of fact and wonder?

Pitjantjatjara people call Quandongs Mangata or Wayanu. The late Ushma Scales had the foresight to see the values and threats to Wayanu. Ushma and his family collected seeds from a variety of plants on the Pitjantjara lands. They then established an orchard at Ilparpa and distributed seedlings. Ushma shared his growing methods with many people. Today, we continue to adapt them.

Please respect the care, knowledge and management of Quandongs by those people who have gone before us. I share these ideas to learn and grow plants so that future generations can have the food, pleasure and health of Quandongs in their gardens or on their country.

I don’t think it is fair or equitable for others to commercially develop the species to the exclusion of custodians and the general public.

How we’ve grown Quandongs from seed successfully – a ‘no transfer and transplant’ method

The methods we’ve used grown Quandongs in Alice differ from others in several ways. Most importantly the seed-plant grows in situ – where you want it – so a vulnerable seedling and host do NOT need to be transplanted.

Be curious, confident and willing to invest effort now for a few years to come to bear fruit.

Quandongs take six to seven years to mature and bear fruit (but most plants in the desert are more rainfall dependant than time dependant).

  • If you’ve got well-established native plants, decide where in your bush block, garden or street verge you’d like Quandong trees to grow.
  • Find a healthy host plant of young (>1 year) to medium age (< 5 yr). Quandongs are partial parasites so Quandong roots and pads need to connect to the roots of a host plant. The potential host should be an established native plant but not too old that its roots are too deep or reduced.
  • I’ve had success with different hosting plants including Hop bush, Narrow-leaf senna, Ruby salt bush, Red bud mallee, Ghost gum, Myoporum. All these host plants were less than five years old when the Quandong established.
  • Set up appropriate watering. Either install a new dripper or use the irrigation dripper going to the potential host plant. Don’t lay your Quandong seeds until you’ve the irrigation set up first (without adequate watering the seedlings may die).
  • Quandongs like deep well-drained drier soils. If they get too wet from rain or overwatering they are vulnerable to dying from fungal root infections .
  • In 2014, our plants were on a once per week one-hour deep water in cool season, twice per week in hot season. In heavy rain the irrigation was turned off. Sometimes I put the sprinkler on established Quandong host plants for 1-2 hours. But after 2016, I didn’t water at all and the trees were still productive. It really depends on the condition of the host plants.

  • Across the bush garden, I use a ‘habitat’ or shady niche approach. Different species of plants are clustered together within about 10m2 rather than spread out. Many desert species seem to establish better in patches where other plants shade and keep moisture close.
  • Accept that Quandong individuals will die so have several-to-lots of places where you’d like them to grow.
  • Take about seven to ten seeds that have been carefully stored for maybe less than two years.
  • In a triangular arrangement with host plant – dripper – seeds, make a tea saucer-sized scoop and place the Quandong seeds there.
  • Place the dripper so it is near the seeds so that the soil hollow of will fill when watering
  • Cover the Quandong seeds with light mulch (not eucalypt bark or leaves). Whitewood mulch has been very successful.
  • This light mulch copies the mulch under a ‘wild’ Quandong plant. It shades the seeds but also may provide a shaded moist place where dark fungus grows on the seed that may help them to crack open and so germinate.
  • Conventional horticulture says the seed needs to pass through an Emu gut to germinate. But despite no Emus in my garden I still get good germination. It is my view that a dark grey mould (see middle photo) contributes to thinning then cracking the seed to allow roots to emerge. The mould mycelia may also provide nutrients to juvenile plants.
  • Try not to disturb the seeds once they’re in situ.
  • Weeds like Couch grass and Buffel grass choke out growing seedlings. I weed under the plants reduce competition. (Although itís possible that the Quandongs host off plants we call weeds).
  • Near fruit ripening time (August – September) I also weed under the trees and keep leaf litter in place so I can collect the fallen fruit more readily and cleanly.
  • They usually germinate in the winter cool time (about July) when the next crop is ripening so it takes at least a year or probably longer for them to germinate.
  • Nurture and protect newly germinated plants from being knocked by dogs, kids etc .
  • Underwater rather than overwater them.
  • I prefer to let the fruit fall rather than pick them direct from the plant. This reduces the risk of breaking branches (very easy). Also, the fallen fruit, being fully ripe, seems to have a stronger flavour.
  • Take care not to step on the seedlings. Seedlings and saplings are very brittle, they snap easily then grow into weaker forms.
  • I pick and skin the fruit daily. Then stew the skins, dry them or make a fruit leather.
  • The seeds I sort by tree of origin then store them inside. Does anyone know their viability span?
  • After harvest, make stewed fruit, pies, tarts … There was even a Quandong profiterole tower one year in the Bush Food Cooking Competition that Rayleen Brown, Peter Yates and I started in 2005.
  • Try, learn, enjoy and let me know how you go. For more information, see my website.

The photo montage reproduced in sections here is by Rayleen Brown (of Kungkas Can Cook), Katelnd Griffin and Fiona Walsh. It has full captions and credits for each of the photos. The montage received a Special Mention in the 2020 ALEC biodiversity photo competition. We plan to print a limited edition set of posters.

Author notes: This article is adapted from notes compiled for a Quandong growing workshop. Thanks to the editors for their invitation to publish it here. 

See also The Quandong Queen, a 5 minute film by David Nixon of ABC Open.

Text of the poem in the middle section of the poster above:

PmerlpeMangataJawirli… / you fed the families / who named / and nurtured you. / But now almost lost / to camels, buffel grass, / your singers silenced. / You survive alone / here and there. / And in our backyards / where we seed, weed, / re-make your habitat, / grow fruit / for the children.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A really interesting article but my experience is that quandongs can’t use buffel grass as a host plant.
    Over two decades ago I was living near Fenn Gap 30km west of town, and there was a solitary quandong tree not far from the new house.
    The tree was surrounded by thick buffel grass and was in pretty poor shape so eventually I took to a mattock and grubbed out all the grass clumps.
    The transformation of that tree was remarkable, in very short order it responded with a massive flowering and new growth.
    The same couldn’t be said for a nearby cluster of emu bush (Eremophila longifolia) that was also cleared of buffel grass as I suspect was the main host species for that particular quandong tree.

  2. Such great detail and practical knowledge in this article. I will definitely be applying this method to see how it works in south west Australia.
    Back in the 80s, an elderly aunt from Port Pirie, who had “secret” trees she would visit each year (including yellow varieties), showed me her propagation technique.
    Basically get the butt end of a shovel and jam the nuts hard into the ground near other perennial plants – it worked very well for me at the family’s old shack on Yorke Peninsula back then but I’ve had no luck in recent times.
    So sad that such beautiful and culturally important trees are so attractive to camels, as are so many arid species.

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