Five edible native plants to grow at home
Australia’s oldest ingredients are new again, and many are easy to grow yourself.
The oldest food culture on Earth is having a moment. Ingredients such as warrigal greens, finger lime and mountain pepper berry, grown and harvested by Australia’s Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years, are finding their way into some of the smartest new restaurants in Victoria.
Following in the trailblazing footsteps of Attica – Ben Shewry’s world-renowned fine diner that has long championed Indigenous ingredients in dishes such as emu egg sabayon and wallaby blood pikelets – smart new eateries like Navi and Sunda are finding new ways to bring bush tomatoes, Tasmanian pepper leaf and lemon myrtle to discerning diners. In the process they are whetting our collective appetite for learning more about the culture and customs of our country’s first people.
Nornie Bero, at her stall Mabu Mabu, is relishing the chance to embrace her cultural identity.
Joining this vanguard is Nornie Bero, who opened her stall Mabu Mabu, meaning “help yourself”, at South Melbourne Market last November, with the aim of making Indigenous flavours more accessible. To this end the Torres Strait Islands-born chef combines native ingredients such as samphire and pepper berries with familiar favourites like hummus, spikes salt with citrus ants, and flavours chimichurri with saltbush.
“It’s just like when bok choy was introduced, people were like, ‘I can’t use bok choy.’ Or, ‘What’s that eggplant dip you’re making?’ Now everyone loves baba ganoush. I’m at the start of that,” says Nornie.
After 20 years working as a chef here and overseas, in kitchens including the Merri Table at CERES in Brunswick East, Nornie is relishing the chance to embrace her cultural identity. “It’s nice to step up and say, ‘this is who I am’, and go back to my roots,” she says. “We want to get natives to the forefront of everyday cooking and teach people about the seasons and what’s Australian grown.”
While Indigenous ingredients can still be difficult to find and expensive to buy, the good news is you can grow many of them yourself. Bili Nursery in Port Melbourne specialises in around 200 species of native Victorian plants, about 30 of them edible. Nursery manager David Sparks has noticed a spike in public interest over the past five years as native ingredients evolve from novelty status to popular flavours.
We asked David to suggest five edible Indigenous plants that are easy to grow at home.
Backyard bush tucker
Grow: In full sun, watering weekly at first, then not at all once established. Can grow into a metre-tall shrub and can be harvested all year.
Eat: The leaves can be cooked like spinach or dried and deep-fried and used as a salt substitute.
Tastes: Salty and mildly herbaceous.
Murnong or yam daisy
Grow: In a pot that catches at least half a day of sunlight. Plant April to September, water every other day in summer and once a week in winter. Harvest in November.
Eat: Raw or roasted, ideal with vegetable salads or a roast.
Tastes: Starchy, sweet, earthy, like coconut and parsnip.
Grow: As for murnong or yam daisy (above)
Eat: Its flowers smell like vanilla and the tubers (a mature plant can produce up to two kilograms of them) are edible both raw and roasted. Slice thinly and layer on proteins cooked in the oven.
Tastes: Bittersweet with a chestnut-like consistency.
Warrigal greens or native spinach
Grow: This sturdy coastal plant can be grown in full sun all year as ground cover. Needs minimal water.
Eat: Boil or blanch like spinach (don’t eat raw as it contains oxalic acid) and add to quiches, spinach pies or stir-fry as a side dish.
Tastes: Like spinach.
Grow: This climber grows on trellises, up fences or along the ground in partial sun. Water weekly and harvest the fruit around Christmas.
Eat: The fruit can be eaten raw or preserved as jam.
Tastes: A little like the name implies; sweet with a hint of aniseed.
While Indigenous ingredients can still be difficult to find and expensive to buy, the good news is you can grow many of them yourself.