By Glenn Leiper
I guess we've all given a thought to the feasibility of living off the land at least once during a fleeting moment when the constant grind of life in modern society makes you wonder whether it's all worthwhile. These days, though, you practically need a small fortune before you can realise such pipe dreams.
But, before the ‘whities’ arrived, the aboriginal folk practised this philosophy in their own inimitable way. Most foods that we include in our diet, so did they. Just substitute yams and tubers for potatoes and carrots, lilly pillys for apples, midyims for pears, kangaroo for beef, hibiscus leaves for cabbage, and the list goes on.
There was certainly a wealth of available food in the environment, and our local area (south-east Queensland) was no exception.
I mentioned tubers earlier. Wombat Berry (Eustrephus latifolius) is a twining, narrow, tough-leaved vine of dry eucalypt forests. As it grows old, it develops literally dozens of 5cm long, lcm wide, white, edible tubers, which are crisp, juicy and taste a little like raw potato, but a trifle smaller.
A common fig tree of local creek banks, Sandpaper Fig (Ficus coronata), has very distinctive sandpapery leaves to 15cm in length. In good seasons it develops a sizeable crop of hairy, purple figs. The fruit is about 2.5cm long. You have to peel off the hairy skin before eating. The fruit, I feel, is one of the nicest local fruits when fully ripe, although a little bland. (The aboriginal people also used the leaves as sandpaper to smooth weapons and utensils. Try it!).
Occasionally, along the creek banks you'll find Lilly Pillys (Acmena smithii) or Bush Cherries (Syzygium australe).They are usually small spreading, glossy-leaved trees overhanging the water, developing bunches of lcm diameter pink or red apple-like fruit. Unfortunately, most lilly pilly fruit, locally, appears misshapen and marked with spots (made by insects laying eggs). Split open the fruit when you find it, checking for any unwanted protein supplements (grubs). There rarely are any; so go for it! They're rather sour and acidic, but, as with any new taste sensation, you can soon develop a taste for it. Lilly Pillys can be rather grainy, but Bush Cherries I find more agreeable, with a crisp, juicy pulp resembling apple flesh. Good tucker (and they make a mighty jam, a little like Rosella).
Bluebell flowers (Wahlenbergia species) can be eaten if your tummy‘s rumbling (if it wasn't, it soon will be!). They are quite tasty, but, being so tiny and lacking any meaty plant tissue, they don't do much to appease hunger.
Macadamia nuts (Macadamia integrifolia) are found in some local remnants of dry rainforest, such as Bahr's Scrub, Cedar Creek, Ormeau and Pimpama. In fact, tha entire world's macadamia nut stock (or Hawaiian Nuts as they are known in many places around the globe) originated from a few bags of nuts collected at Pimpama earlier this century and taken back to Hawaii. After selecting the best and biggest fruiters from these seedlings when mature, the farmers started a lucrative farming venture. Macadamia nuts became our only native foodplant to the ‘outside world’ and a ‘ripper’ at that!
Native Rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus) is an open shrub to 5 metres, found usually close to creeks or wet forests. It has large white hibiscus flowers which stand out like a beacon in the forest when sunlight falls on them. If you are game, you can eat them, but they are usually alive with small insects, making them a little unappetising to the normal palate. The tastier part of the plant is the new leaf growth. Although the leaves are rather prickly, they crush easily under the pressure of a grinding dental set and are quite tasty. If you are lacking the intestinal fortitude to try this taste sensation, you can always cook these leaves as you do for cabbage. To some this may be easier to stomach (all psychological, really).
And to finish off this article, I leave you with the thought of a mouthful of stinging nettles! Cooked, they are quite a reasonable green vegetable, palatable to even the most discerning palate; raw, for masochists only!!!