It's cruel timing. Just as our native spices, fruits and vegetables are being embraced by everyone from chefs to cheesemakers and brewers, supplies of some of them are drying up.
“You may wonder why various spices, especially the Australian natives, are often in short supply or simply unavailable. The answer is simply climate change.” This is part of an announcement on the website of spice merchants Herbie’s Spices, listing bush tomato, pepperberry and wattleseed as the most significantly affected native Australian crops.
“It’s there and it is happening,” says Herbie’s Spices owner Ian Hemphill of climate change, which is keeping those native Australian goods out of stock. “I just think it’s a reality and something we have to learn to cope with. It does affect what people are able to get and that’s why I felt it was necessary to tell people.”
Bush tomato, also known as akudjura or pura, typically dries out while still on the plant as humidity levels are so low where it grows in central Australia. However, excessive rains in those areas over the past year have interfered with the fruit’s natural drying process. “The bush tomato that was growing basically came on too quickly, and the extreme wet essentially made them burst and become useless,” Hemphill explains.
When it comes to the shortage of pepperberry, it was the reverse scenario. “Tasmania had a very long drought, so the Tasmanian native pepperberry bushes didn’t bear the little pepperberries, so that has also been unavailable,” Hemphill says. Likewise, wattleseed supplies are also low.
Dale Tilbrook, a Wardandi Bibbulmun woman from the southwest of Western Australia, has also had trouble sourcing bush tomatoes, pepperberry and wattleseed. Tilbrook owns Maalinup Aboriginal Gallery in the Swan Valley, where she sells native Australian foods that she collects locally and transforms into dried herbs and spices, jams and sauces, as well as products from other suppliers. “Whether or not the rain event in central Australia is due to climate change, I don’t know,” she says, adding that that many native Australian plants don’t necessarily have good harvests each year anyway. “I was looking forward to the new harvest [of bush tomatoes], but it now looks as though we are in for lean times again.”
Tilbrook says it’s inevitable that native Australian edible plants will be affected by changing weather conditions. “We do notice that plants like some wattles and native limes get ‘confused’ with the seasons and flower out of time. We had a long cold early spring [last] year, so the quandongs were late ripening. Then the hot easterly came in and dried the fruit before it had time to come off the stone properly.”
Hemphill points out that unlike major crops, which are grown in higher volumes and across a larger number of sites, spice supplies can be more acutely affected by weather changes. “What happens with spices, you’ve only got maybe two or three places you’re getting it from, and if one or two of those are badly affected by climate changes, then in a way you’re stuck,” he says. “You just have to be patient to wait until they come good again.”
...until really now they’ve had virtually no human intervention in their cultivation
There are a couple more reasons why native Australian spices may sometimes be harder to find than those from elsewhere. While Herbie’s Spices sources from suppliers that harvest both wild and cultivated crops, Hemphill mentions that native Australian species can be difficult to formally propagate. “We’re talking about plants that are millions of years old, and up until really now they’ve had virtually no human intervention in their cultivation,” he says, adding that the interruption of traditional controlled burning practices by Aboriginal Australian communities has negatively affected the growth of native plants. “The [Australian] native food industry is such a fledgling industry, it’s only really been going for 30 years… what was happening with these crops 200 or 300 years ago, we have no idea, we have no record.”
Tilbrook explains that as most native Australian edible plants haven’t been domesticated, cultivars producing a reliable supply of ingredients have yet to be developed and understood. “Certain bushfoods were cultivated by Aboriginal people, but these cultivars were largely lost with the arrival of the Europeans,” she says. “In Perth and to the north of Perth, for example, Aboriginal people cultivated ‘warrine’, a type of yam or bush potato, dioscorea hastifolia. The yam gardens quickly disappeared as the colonists claimed the best land for themselves.”
It’s not only Australian native spices that are scarce at the moment, says Hemphill. “There have been some climatic conditions in Mexico which have made it difficult for some varieties of chillies, and vanilla has experienced issues brought on by a lot of cyclones that have hit a number of tropical countries where it’s grown.”
If you can’t get your hands on the native flavours needed to make chocolate and wattleseed self-saucing pudding, pepperberry-spiced roast duck or platter of bush tomato scones until stocks are (hopefully) refreshed with the next harvest, you can use some clever substitutes suggested by Herbie’s Spices, or turn your attention to other, still available Australian ingredients: perhaps Peter Kuruvita’s recipe for blackened mackerel with lemon myrtle & finger lime.