For anyone familiar with bunya pine trees (Araucaria bidwillii), summer is associated with a distinct and interesting botanical phenomenon. Each January at the Australian Botanic Garden in Sydney's Mount Annan, the bunya pine trees begin to drop their cones.
If you don't think this is a big deal, you should know that they used to be dinosaur food millions of years ago - bunya pines have been on this earth for that long. The trees can grow up to 35-45 metres high and live for about 600 years. The pine cones that fall each year can weigh up to 10 kilograms, and contain bunya nuts, large edible seeds that have held both cultural and culinary significance for Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years.
“The population of bunya pine trees across Australia appear to have come from a single source in Queensland,” says Oliver Costello, a Bundjalung man working on multiple projects for the NSW Office for Environmental Heritage. “From this information, we can discern that a single seed or a small amount of seeds have been brought down in a process of cultural migration. We’re working on the science to provide support around this theory.”
According to Costello, there’s a significant body of lore surrounding the nuts contained in bunya pine cones. “Bunya trees fruit in the summertime, and that’s when clans from remote areas would travel to the Bunya Mountains [in southern Queensland] for ceremonies. The abundance of the seed facilitated massive gatherings, where people would talk lore, marriage and ceremony, and then travel back their country,” he says. “There’s a link between bunya seed dispersal and ceremony; they’re indicative of connectivity across landscapes and languages.”
Traditionally, bunya pine seeds were roasted on an open fire and eaten as they were. “They’re like a massive Brazil nut,” says Costello.
John Siemon, the curator manager at Mount Annan's Australian Botanic Garden, tells SBS that the bunya nuts' high-nutrient value made them ideal snacks for Aboriginal Australians. These days, the seeds can be used in a range of contemporary dishes – from pizza toppings to a pesto base.
That’s precisely what becomes of many bunya nuts when they fall at Mount Annan – Botanic Gardens staff take them home to cook. They’re also commonly used for the Gardens’ Aboriginal Heritage programs and bush food experiences.
Clayton Donovan, a Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung man and respected Indigenous chef, uses bunya nuts in the food he makes at his catering company, Jaaning Tree, as regularly as supply allows. "I'll poach them in saffron-infused liquid, shave them and throw them into salads," he says. "Or I'll grind them up into a meal and make gnocchi and serve it in saffron sauce."
But the cones have to weather a few storms before they make their way onto any plate.
“Cone development is influenced by a range of environmental factors,” says Siemon. “Throughout their 17+ month development, changes in rainfall, temperature and storms can do untold damage on developing cones. Bunya pines typically have a bumper crop every two or three years.”
The trees can grow up to 35-45 metres high and live for about 600 years.
Only time will tell whether any of the cones in this year’s fall will break records.
“The Australian Botanic Garden’s current record is a 6.2 kg cone from our 2016 season,” he says. “Cones fall throughout the season and not all of them make it to the ground intact, so it’s entirely feasible we’ve had even larger cones than that.
Look out for the pines in areas of Sydney, south-east Queensland and the Bunya Mountains – you’ll be able to recognise them from their iconic shape and characteristic dome at the top of the tree. Just watch out for falling cones!
Lead image from Flickr (John Tan).