Springing out of dry earth, this grey-blue bush may look like common shrubbery, but saltbush is actually one of Australia’s best herbs. The edible plant, which is salty and herby in flavour, is an underutilised native food - especially given how versatile it is.
Traditionally, some Indigenous groups used the saltbush (“Purngep” or “Binga”) seeds in baking, where they were ground and added to dampers. It’s documented that the leaves were more medicinal, and often added to water as skin cleansers for sores, burns and wounds. Today, however, saltbush is still incorporated in baked goods, but its leaves are the most desired part. The round silvery-green toothed-edge leaves can be added fresh to salads, stir-fry and meat marinades, or dried and used as seasonings (it can be a direct substitute for salt). There is also an emerging trend of using it to flavour beer and spirits, and drying it out as a natural ‘potato chip’ alternative.
The saltbush movement
The saltbush in today’s food industry has been carefully curated by commercial nurseryman and managing director of Outback Pride bush foods, Mike Quarmby. In the late 1980s, Quarmby was approached to help farmers rehabilitate degraded pastoral land in the region between Port August to Jonestown in South Australia. What he soon found was that the over-pasture had also removed the “best types” of saltbush between these areas and what was left was a very bitter-tasting plant that livestock did not want to graze on.
On a mission to find something more palatable, Quarmby undertook a lengthy journey to find natural, unaffected, nutritional saltbush. He found and collected seeds from saltbush on an island in the Lachlan River in NSW and a 150-year-old plant in Broken Hill.
Quarmby says he crossed the two in a huge plantation trial and eventually came up with a “super performer”. This agricultural marriage established a leafy vegetable with a natural range of mineral salts, antioxidants, calcium and protein. He is now Australia’s largest grower and supplier of the native greens, working alongside Aboriginal communities and with a distinguished client list including chefs Kylie Kwong, Mark Olive and Peter Gilmore.
Edible and ecological
Quarmby says that the tree, sometimes fondly called ‘Oldman saltbush’, is strong and stoic like an old man. And like an old man, saltbush comes with many stories. When European settlers started clearing lands for farming (particularly in the ‘wheatbelt’), they removed this necessary plant (and others) which played a role in managing the watertable balance. As such, it caused increased levels of salt in the soil to rise and kill salt-sensitive vegetation, spoil drinking water, destroy natural ecosystems and create patches of bare ground. Educator, horticulturist, Badawang elder of the Yuin nation and founder of Nura Gunyu Education Program, Noel Butler explains:
“Everything that has evolved in this land has evolved over millions of years. We have plants and animals here that you can’t find anywhere else in the world and it’s because they’ve developed in a really harsh changing climate and adapted to really impoverished soils, like phosphorus deficient soils. So everything has a place and role to play.”
With ongoing land degradation, alarming statistics of rising salinity have led many farming communities attempting to regrow native flora. In somewhat of an ironic twist, saltbush is now being strategically planted to assist in the livelihood of the very industry that saw so much saltbush cleared from the land. Now, this salt-tolerant bush is largely used to draw salt from the soil and reduce irrigation on the surface where it can disrupt and kill salt-sensitive vegetation.
“Today farmers are now paying the price because they’ve got buggered up soil and the thing is to go back with nature, instead of trying to dominate it and you put it back and I think that’s a winner,” Butler says.
Where can you find it?
As saltbush grows naturally in drier inland parts across most states and is long-lasting and flourishes all year round, the plentiful plant is an ideal product for restaurants and retailers to use. Specialty food stores, farmers markets and restaurants are gradually catching onto this versatile sustainable food, but Noel Butler, who is forager, grower and supplier, says more promotion is needed.
“Think of things other than lemon myrtle and macadamia nuts - we’ve got over 5000 species of edible plants out of the 24,000 endemic plants in this country and we’re not using any of them! You have a look at the so-called superfoods from other countries and we have far more superior foods that are barely utilised."
While Butler champions a keener interest in the native food market, he’d like to see it remain just that - a native food market, not an overseas one.
“We don’t want broad acre farming; we don’t want chemical companies starting to hybridise stuff and take it over. We want it to belong to Australia, we want Australian people to eat proper food that’s grown in these soils. We’re encouraging people to try our different foods, learn as much as you can and grow it and exchange it.”
Playing an important role in the country’s agriculture industry and packed with protein and minerals, perhaps saltbush will become more of a kitchen staple, than a backyard one? ‘Please pass the saltbush & pepper.’
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