Hemi Parasitic Trees
Aboriginal Bush Tucker Trees
The Quandong or native peach belongs to the Santalaceae family. It is a native Australian tree and has the botanical name of Santalum acuminatum. Its common names are sweet, desert or Western quandong. When in full fruit, the tree droops with its crop of bright, red fruit and is quite beautiful.
A close relative of the quandong is Santalum spicatum, the sandalwood tree proper. Santalum spicatum is known for its aromatic oils.
'Santalon' is Greek for sandalwood tree and 'acuminatum' is from the Latin meaning slender or pointed – a reference to the leaves.
The quandong is an important 'bush tucker' tree to Australian aboriginals and is found in semi-arid areas of all mainland states. The fruit was used in jams, pies and jellies by early settlers. Early explorers probably avoided attacks of scurvy by consuming the quandong fruits. The seed of this variety has a sweet, almond-flavoured taste. Some species have a distasteful seed, which is caused by methyl benzoate, an aromatic oil present in some varieties.
The Santalum genus has about eight species which grow in Australia. The main characteristic of the genus is that the members are root parasites – hemi parasitic plants. They attach themselves to the roots of other plants through connections called haustoria. They then gain some of their nutrients and water from the host plant. Acacias, she-oaks and other nitrogen-fixing plants are favoured as hosts.
With the growing interest in so-called bush foods, products made from the quandong can be purchased. Jams and chutneys are now quite widely available.
The quandong is a small tree (or large shrub) and has lance-shaped leaves which are an attractive greyish-green. Small, white flowers grow in clusters and develop into bright red, 25mm diameter fleshy fruits. Under the fleshy covering is a hard, woody shell which protects spherical seeds of around 10mm diameter. These wooden, pitted seeds were used as stud buttons, beads and as marbles in checkerboard sets before the days of plastic.
Wild quandongs are found mostly on sandy and stony soils. In the Northern Territory, it is believed that excessive grazing of the trees by camels is the cause of diminishing numbers. The quandong has a high salt tolerance. Trials are being conducted to improve the quandong to a point where it is more commercially viable as a food crop than it is at present.
When we spent four days on the Holland track recently, we came across a quandong with a good crop of red fruits. We took out the kernels and stewed the fruit with sugar and strawberries. We used the mixture as a filling in pancakes and ate them with cream around the campfire. Life doesn't get much better than that.
Before the quandong will grow from seed, the hard shell must be cracked. Germination may take from 3 to 12 weeks. Young plants should be planted out with a host plant as soon as reasonably possible. The new plant will need watering until it is established. Duplication by grafting is also an option and is becoming more popular as a means of ensuring duplication of favourable traits.
The quandong is as native to Australia as the kangaroo and, to the aborigines, probably just as important as a food source.