Thursday, February 24, 2011

Feeding the Chooks

Ian Simons from Helidon has spent some years doing interesting research on perennial plants as food sources for free-range chickens.
He has tested the popularity among his flock, of the seeds and fruits of various plants, both native and exotic, and his results might interest those of you who would like to plant local natives where your chooks roam.
Ian’s birds “ate avidly” the seeds of our local wattle species the “Brisbane” wattle Acacia fimbriata, and the Queensland Silver wattle A. podalyriifolia.

They were equally enthusiastic about the fruits of our local trees, the soap ash Alphitonia excelsa, (left), scrub tuckeroo Cupaniopsis parvifolia (below), and the shrub native indigo Indigofera australis.

The spring fruits of the ruby saltbush Enchylaena tomentosa (below) were very popular with “the girls”,

as were the summer ones of kangaroo apple Solanum aviculare, and the autumn ones of sweet Jasmine jasminum suavissimum.

They also loved the summer fruits of the large, thorny scrambler, cockspur thorn Maclura cochinchinensis (at left).

This is not a plant that many would choose to put in their gardens, but if you already have some, especially those heavily fruiting plants which can climb high into a tree canopy, you might consider retaining them for the sake of the poultry. Don’t forget that you will need at least one male plant to keep the females fruiting.
Ian's work is ongoing, so we may hear of other interesting results in the future. You might like to read his research
Meanwhile, other friends report that their chooks love the fruits of their little whalebone trees Streblus brunonianus so much that they will stretch their necks and jump to reach them. This is another plant that needs a male to keep the females producing fruits.
Do any readers have other reports of native plants that are poultry favourites?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pretty Pink Tongues

Rostellularia adscendens
Natural grasslands don’t just grow grass. They can be very rich environments. Besides containing a mixture of grasses (typically about six) they also contain dozens of small herb species, lilies, sedges, saltbushes, and so on.
This little herb is very common in our local grasslands. It has never been considered showy enough to attract the attention of gardeners, which is a pity. Besides being sweetly pretty, it is a host plant for the Meadow Argus butterfly (Junonia villida).
There are two local varieties. The one at left is an upright plant with narrower, shinier leaves (var adscendens). I photographed it west of Hampton.

On the top of the range in the snuffy red soil we find this one, a softer plant with broader, hairier leaves (var latifolia).

Pink tongues could be grown in a flower garden, but can also be naturalised in the mulch of a shrubbery.

It, and the other little grassland herbs many of which have equally delightful and dainty little flowers, are good reasons for not overdoing the lawn-mowing, particularly in “acreage” residential areas.

The butterflies will thank us for it, too.

Green-banded Blue Butterfly

Danis hymetis

This little fellow must have been just desperate for a drink. It landed on my finger, when I was rather hot and sweaty from bushwalking, and as you can see, it has its little tongue out and is doing its best!

It seemed at first to be attracted by the bright-coloured shirt worn by one of my companions, but then settled for a finger, and was happy to be passed from hand to hand.
There are a lot of these little butterflies about at the moment, anywhere that their host plants, the Soap Trees Alphitonia excelsa grow.
For more on this useful butterfly host tree, see Jan 2009

Thursday, February 10, 2011

No-fuss Bunya Nut Cookery

Araucaria bidwillii
It’s the Season again, so keep an eye out for roadside stalls selling the cones.
We bought this one at Blackbutt last weekend. The sellers saw us coming and immediately changed the price - from $2.00 to $1.00! The people were tired of tending the stand, and just wanted to get rid of the 60-cone yield of their tree. This classic Australian food is ridiculously under-valued!
It is one of our best "bush tucker plants", and a great choice for people wanting to do environmentally friendly Australian permaculture.

This cone was 24cm long, 18cm in diameter, and weighed 3.5kg - a larger and heavier item than your head.
It contained 56 nuts.

Cones can be even larger than this, with up to 80 nuts. Under a bunya tree is not a good place to loiter, in the season. Neither is it a suitable place to park your car!
To gather the nuts, it is most usual, these days, to wait till the cone starts to fall to pieces. Fresh-fallen cones can be jemmied apart, however - and Aborigines used to climb the trees to collect unripe cones, whose tender young nuts are said to be an outstanding delicacy - sweet and creamy.
Aborigines also ate old nuts. They would to bury them (in their shells, in string bags) in the mud of creeks, to preserve them for later eating. They would dig them up again once they had sprouted. As with all sprouting seeds, this increases their vitamin content. Bunya seeds treated this way also developed a very offensive smell, which was passed onto everything that touched them - but were considered to be a gourmet treat. All who enjoy garlic will sympathise with those who considered that the subsequent bad breath was worth the taste sensation.
Modern cooks, however, might prefer to preserve their bunya nuts in the fridge This is said to sweeten the flavour, as also happened with the buried nuts, but presumably doesn’t let them develop their full odour. Lovers of blue-veined cheese might like to try the burying option!
The nuts can also be frozen.
According to Wikipedia, their nutritional content is: 40% water, 40% complex carbohydrates, 9% protein, 2% fat, 0.2% potassium, 0.06% magnesium. They are gluten free. They have a healthy glycaemic index (GI) rating , variously measured at 50 - 75. By contrast, other tree nuts have 50-75% fat and under 20%carbohydrates. Bunya nuts have more in common with cereals than with other nuts.
The traditional “whitefella” way to cook bunya nuts is to boil them for 30 minutes in their shells, in salted water, having first cut or slit the shell, so it won’t explode. Some would add salt to the water - and boiling them with bacon bones is a particularly delicious alternative.
The boiled shells are tough and fibrous. They are easier to peel than raw nuts, but not much. Long-nosed pliers, washed to kitchen-clean standards, are a useful tool.
Modern cooks have since invented may more complex, interesting and exciting ways of opening and cooking them, using such tools as secateurs, microwaves, blenders, bread knives, machetes, wooden blocks and a need for leather gloves. See the internet for a multiplicity of methods.
However, for those (like me) who just want to cook the things and eat them in various delicious ways without making heavy weather of the whole procedure, the old way is still the best.

So, you’ve got hold of a Bunya Cone.
What do you do?

Take care. Those prickly points are sharp!

The easiest way to get the nuts out is to wait until the cone starts to break up of its own accord.

Then you free them from their husks. A sharp knife helps you peel them back from the tip.

While they are still a bit damp from the cone (or have been saved in a plastic bag in the fridge, so they won’t dry out), you hold them with one hand and tap them with a hammer to split the tips open.

This is best done outdoors on bricks or some such, and done rather scientifically so as not to damage the kernel. You’ll notice that the nutshells have a seam down each side, and this is where you should hit. All that’s needed is a gentle tap, to produce a tiny split at the point.

Then roast them for 30 minutes. An oven at 200° Celsius does the trick, but I imagine it would also work well as a campfire activity.
You’ll notice that the splits in the shell increase as the nuts cook.

Give them five minutes to cool. (The now-crisp shell cools fast, the kernel only slowly.) Then hit them gently with a hammer again, concentrating on those side-seams.
Once you have the knack, which doesn’t take long to acquire, you’ll find the shell falls open into its two parts, and the nut can be lifted out whole.

You can eat it at once. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavour and a waxy-floury texture.
You can also subject it to a great variety of culinary processes - marinating, cooking in soup, or serving with a sauce or a dip are my favourites.
Many of our early settlers had a horror of eating anything their European forebears hadn’t brought to Australia with them, so tended to undervalue this useful and tasty food. They even invented the myth that the little green shoot within the nut is poisonous. In reality, it is just as edible as the rest of the nut, and only adds to its nutritional value.

Growing Bunya Trees for Nuts.

Fresh seed germinates easily if kept damp. The plants grow best if subjected to ordinary good gardening practices - watering, mulching, and fertilising. Ordinary balanced fertiliser, as for veges, is best, (as for all Australian native plants of rainforest origin). Don't use special “native plant” fertiliser, as this may be too low in phosphorus for them
Young trees produce only male flowers, which are at the end of the branches. Then at around 15 years they begin to produce female flowers on the inner third of their branches.

They will produce more nuts if grown in groups. They are wind-pollinated, and this female-over-male flower arrangement is designed to prevent the female flowers from being fertilised by pollen from the male flowers of their own tree.
For more on Bunya Trees see Jan 2008 and April 2009.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Oakey Bottlebrush

Melaleuca quercina
(Callistemon quercinus)
The best known native bottlebrush in our part of the world is the very common small tree, the “weeping red bottlebrush”, Melalueca viminalis (Callistemon viminalis), with its bright red flowers.
We have another local "Callistemon", little known, and only recently named.
I photographed this specimen in a garden near Felton, where it was humming with life. At least six kinds of insect were feeding on the nectar in the flowers, three of them large and beautiful butterflies.
The seed from which this one was grown came from a small population of the plants, spread along just a few miles of Emu Creek, between Cambooya and Felton. In most of the creek, including near the Emu Creek State School the callistemons are the more usual M. viminalis with its familiar red flowers.
(This particular “Emu Creek” is not to be confused with the many others of the same name, in our country where this large bird was once common, including the other “Emu Creek” in our district, north of Crows Nest.)

As you can see, the flowers vary in colour, opening salmon pink, and fading to cream. The effect of mixed colours on the bush is very pretty.

Young plants have the bushy habit shown above, both in the wild and in gardens. Older plants develop into substantial small trees.

I photographed these last weekend, from the bridge over Emu Creek, on the Cambooya-Felton Road.
They do look a bit flood-bothered, don’t they?

Another view of the largest tree, taken from another angle, gives a better idea of its size - and of the size of the flood which burst the banks of the creek and spread over the surrounding plain.

Like M. viminalis, these would be a good choice to plant in areas where flooding may sweep away less sturdy vegetation. They hold on tightly to the soil with their flood- and drought-adapted roots, and survive inundation.
As you see, they thrive on the heavy black soil. (However they have also proven to be as tough and adaptable as the closely related local red bottlebrush, growing well on dry slopes and hills.)
Other small populations of the same species occur in various places, mostly on tributaries of the Condamine River.
There are several very similar species which, until the recent official naming of the plant, were lumped together under various names including: Callistemon sp. (Chinchilla D.M.Gordon 401); sp. ‘Injune’ (or "Injune Pink"); and sp. ‘Koreelah Creek’.
Melaleuca quercina grows in Oakey Creek, on the way to the once well known Brookvale Park Botanic Garden. Its owner Lance Cockburn sold them as Callistemon 'Weir River'. (Weir River is out near Moonie.)
This is a special plant for those of us who live on the Darling Downs, and value our very own natives.
I look forward to seeing it become easier to buy!