This small perennial has yellow flowers similar to a dandelion.
It was once one of the most important food plants for Aboriginal people of the grassy plains of southern and eastern Australia.
The small sweet tubers are produced each year in early spring, and harvested in summer (about November). In a typical example of the semi-agricultural practices of the Aborigines, smaller tubers were left in the soil, and meanwhile the soil-loosening effect of the digging sticks used by the harvesting women provided good growth conditions. Old records tell of hundreds of women spread across the plains at harvest time, all digging for these nutritious roots.
The plants die back to their underground roots in March, and begin putting up new rosettes of fresh leaves in Autumn. The grasslands where the murnong grew were burned off during this dormancy period, with the burning controlled so that only some patches were burned each year. The whole growing area was burned every 3 years. This controlled the growth of larger plants, which would otherwise have shaded out this valuable food crop.
The roots are washed, then roasted for about 10 minutes. They become soft and rather syrupy-sticky, with a sweet flavour which some people describe as resembling coconut, or a sweet nut. Modern recipes recommend little olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper.
My pot-grown plants produced rather small roots, so I have moved them into better soil, and hope for a better crop next year.
The following sequence shows the interesting development of the dandelion-like flowers. Their heads droop modestly until the flowers open, then it is time to lift them and attract pollinating insects. They stay upright for just one day, then droop again as the seeds form. When the seeds are ripe, the stems elongate and straighten, holding the seeds up to the wind, for distribution.
As with all daisies, each “flower” is really a bunch of tiny, individual flowers. In murnong, they have just one petal each.
Murnong is one of Australia’s best bush foods. The prominent 19th Century botanist Ferdinand von Mueller thought it was so valuable as a food plant, that it was the only Australian plant he recommended for development as a crop for white Australians.
Unfortunately, the wild plants, which once attracted people in their hundreds for the annual harvest, grew in the same grasslands as the white settlers coveted for sheep pasturage. Early records say that sheep loved it so much that they would eat the leaves and dig up the roots. (Some accounts say they did it with their hooves. Others say they dug them up with their noses. Perhaps someone who knows sheep better than I can clarify this!) Some squatters claimed that their sheep lived almost entirely on murnong for their first year, on their newly claimed pastures. Whatever digging technique they used, they would exterminate most of the plants in the first year. They rapidly drove the species to extinction over most of its range, causing disaster for the people who depended on it for food.
We will probably never know whether it once grew widely on the Darling Downs. The only record of it being found here, that I know about, was of plants growing naturally at Gladfield, near Cunningham’s Gap, in 1891 - 50 years after the squatters arrived with their flocks and herds.
This is a very tolerant plant, growing well in a range of soils, from acid to alkaline. It tolerates drought and frosts, but no more than very light shade.