Quandong - the jewel of the Australian bush
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
Quandong fruit on one of our trees at Gwambygine
For a few years in the early 1980s I found myself working in forestry research in Western Australia, and one of my colleagues was the silviculturalist, Owen Loneregan. I had first worked with Owen in 1960 when I was a university student doing work-experience in the karri forest, and he was studying the mysterious flowering and seeding cycles of karri. My job had been climbing trees to collect samples of buds and blossom. Owen was a lovely chap, completely dedicated to the forest, but he no longer climbed trees, and was not a very well-organised research officer. He had been in aircrew in the RAF’s Bomber Command during the War, flying missions over occupied Europe, and was still suffering from the psychological effects. He was small, round, and good-humoured, and peered at you owlishly through heavy spectacles. I always thought his initials OWL were apposite.
Twenty years later our paths again crossed and his research focus was now the highly valuable Western Australian sandalwood tree (Santalum spicatum), specifically its regeneration in the bush, and its cultivation for commercial plantations. Once widespread in what is today the State’s main agricultural region, sandalwood is now only found growing a long way from civilisation – in the arid rangelands and deserts way out to the east of Kalgoorlie. But the world demand for sandalwood oil has not diminished, making the management of the species in the wild, and its commercial development even more important.
I found Owen's work fascinating, and it led to enjoyable field trips to the remote bushlands where sandalwood is still widespread and commercially harvested, and to reserves where harvesting is prohibited. It was in places like the quaintly-named Bullock Holes Sandalwood Reserve, that Owen elucidated the complex processes by which sandalwood grows (it is a semi-parasite), survives and naturally regenerates in the harsh conditions of our arid inland.
All of this brings me around to the real story here. In 1990 when my wife and I purchased our small property at Gwambygine on the Avon River in Western Australia, one of the things I really wanted to do was grow sandalwood. So, in Year One I planted several jam wattle trees (Acacia acuminatum) to act as hosts, and ordered about 20 sandalwood seedlings from a nursery. The seedlings were duly collected and planted next to the hosts in Year 2, twelve months later. Standard practice, as recommended by Owen.
As our sandalwood trees grew, I used to take a passing look at them from time to time, and often thought to myself that there was something "not quite right", but I assumed that this was because they were an unusual variety or provenance. However, once they flowered and produced fruit my doubts were confirmed: they were not sandalwood at all, but quandongs. The quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is a closely-related and similar-looking tree, but it does not have the valuable aromatic heartwood. The fruit also are similar - until you peel off the skin and inspect the woody stones encasing the soft and edible kernel. The quandong nuts are fissured and wrinkled, while those of sandalwood are smooth.
We were not disappointed to discover that our trees were not sandalwood. It was great to have some quandong trees, having in the past collected fruit from wild trees in the bush, and cooked them into pies and tarts. (I also, eventually successfully established six real sandalwood trees).
Ellen with quandong trees, in the Boonalelling Nature Reserve
The quandong grows into a shapely little tree, 4-5 m in height. It is found all over non-tropical Australia, and was known to the indigenous people by many different names, according to the local language. In south-western WA the Noongar name is Wongup. Early bushmen sometimes called them "native peach" (or even more romantically "the Jewel of the Australian Desert"). They have long been one of the most important bush tucker species of the outback, not only because it is so tasty, but also because of the wide range of its medicinal properties. The freshly peeled bark has antiseptic properties and was used by Aboriginal people to dress cuts and bruises, and the oily nut was valued for its health-giving properties (it is very high in Vitamin C) and was also used to treat skin ailments and to ameliorate toothache. The fruit became popular with the early settlers in Australia for making puddings, jam and chutney. The dried stones were made into necklaces or hung from hat brims (like corks) to keep the flies off, were used as marbles and (when dyed different colours) as 'pieces' in the once-popular game of Chinese Chequers.
Quandong nuts from which the red flesh has been removed for cooking
Quandong fruit was also a favourite food of emus, and this was one of the main ways the tree was distributed - the nut passes through the emu undigested, and then germinates in the nutritious emu dropping.
Quite apart from its appreciation by Aborigines and emus, the quandong has many interesting associations with the early Australian explorers. John Eyre, on his epic crossing of Southern Australia was forced to make use of bush tucker to survive, one of which was quandong. Of the fruit he wrote in his journal:
When this is ripe it is a deep red colour, and consists of a solid mealy substance about 3 mm in thickness, enclosing a large round stone, which upon being broken yields a well-flavoured kernel. The edible part of the fruit has an agreeable acid taste .... the shrub on which this grows is very elegant and graceful, varying from one to four metres in height.
He added poetically:
When in full bearing, nothing can exceed its beauty, drooping beneath its crimson load.
Ernest Giles (one of the toughest and most poetic of the early explorers), in one of his three great traverses of the land, encountered a grove of quandong trees in the desert, covered with ripe fruit. "The most palatable and sweetest I have ever eaten" he wrote. I also love this line from Ion Idriess’ account of the expedition to find Lasseter’s Reef. One evening in the depths of Central Australia: “…the men camped among hills dotted with quandong trees, those rich, scarlet plums of the desert”.
A graceful quandong tree in the bluebush country of central Australia
Physiologically, quandong is an interesting tree, being described as a ‘semi-parasite’. Although the tree's green leaves are capable of photosynthesis (converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbohydrates and sugars), it is pretty-much dependent on a nearby host tree to provide it with nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. The quandong roots attach themselves to the roots of the host plant and are able to extract moisture and nutriment from them. Many different species can act as hosts, but the jam wattle is probably the best. By dint of its natural toughness, and its access to other plant's root systems, quandong is highly drought-resilient. They are the only "fruit trees" to survive in the arid outback without irrigation.
Quandongs are also very fire resistant. Although a hot fire will kill the mature tree, the roots survive and produce suckers that quickly replace their parent. In fact, the tree will even send up root suckers without a fire. One of our quandong mother trees has a family of about twenty-five off-spring nestled under her skirts, all having emerged as suckers from the roots.
The first thing we found out about the quandong trees we accidentally planted at Gwambygine was that they only produced fruit in any quantity in years of above-average winter rainfall. The second was that the ring-neck parrots loved the fruit just as much as we did, and if we were not on the alert, they would get to it before we did, stripping the ripe fruit with ruthless efficiency. For about fifteen years we did not get a single ripe quandong.
Then one year we struck it lucky. It was a good winter, with abundant rainfall, and the parrots were elsewhere. Our trees flowered prolifically and were soon loaded with fruit, initially green but then weathering to a bright scarlet by early summer. [A visiting friend, an Englishwoman, thought the fruit were baubles with which we had decorated the tree as a "gay manifestation of the Yuletide spirit", to quote from a story by James Thurber].
Freshly picked quandongs, and the end-point: a quandong and crumble tart
Since that first crop, we have been lucky for several years now, getting a nice crop of quandong fruit nearly every October. The trick is to forestall the onslaught of parrots by picking the fruit the moment they turn red. Individual fruits on the same tree do not ripen simultaneously, but over a period of 2-3 weeks; this means that to harvest a tree you need to return to it 3-4 times, getting the ripe ones just before the parrots. With a nod to pioneering tradition, we always collect in billies for transport to the kitchen for cooking, or to the cupboard for storage. They keep well, at least for a couple of months in our experience.
A billy-full of ripe quandongs, en route to the kitchen
The Aborigines certainly knew how to preserve the fruit. Writing in 1938 (in The Red Centre, another of my favourite books) H H Finlayson observed:
In parts of the country [the quandong forms] uniform thickets covering many acres ... it affords one of the few cases in which an attempt is made ... to preserve a perishable foodstuff for future use. The fruits are stoned, pounded, partially dried and then pressed into cakes which are carried about for a considerable time after the harvest is over.
Incidentally, I used to wonder how the Aborigines were able to collect ripe quandongs in competition with parrots and emus. I have since read how they were able to deal with emu predation by building up a stack of brushwood and sticks around a well-laden tree, so constructed as to ensure the emu could not stretch its long neck across and gobble down the ripe fruit. And, of course, there were fewer ring-neck parrots in those days – they are one of the bird species that has benefited from agricultural and horticultural development in south-west WA – and in any case, Aboriginal people regarded the parrots as good eating; they were not then a protected species as they are today.
Perhaps it is because of the difficulty of protecting the fruit from parrots, or the fact that they are slightly finicky to harvest, prepare and cook, but we have never seen commercial quandong orchards in Western Australia. I have heard of one in South Australia, and I have read several interesting publications by passionate quandong growers. My favourite is the book by Neville Bonney. It is full of superb photographs, interesting historical and horticultural information and, best of all, recipes.
Neville Bonney’s beautiful book on quandongs – the source of most our recipes.
Picking and preparing quandongs is quite easy, although a step ladder (or the back of the ute) might be needed to get at the fruit on the taller trees. The red flesh from the ripe fruit is easily peeled off and the nut discarded or cracked open to enable the kernel to be eaten. The flesh can be eaten raw … it has a unique flavour, tangy and zesty, quite unlike the taste of any other fruit, but our favourite approach is to stew them and make a pie or tart. Actually, I find the taste of stewed quandongs a trifle too “tart” and prefer them stewed with a few slices of Granny Smith apple, or a stick or two of rhubarb. Sugar must always be added, and generously, to the stewing process.
I have not tried it, but an old pastoralist mate once told me how his mother used to make a quandong sauce, which she would use as a glaze on the Sunday roast pork. He smacked his lips remembering it.
My pastoralist mate Bill Fitzgerald (with Betty and Brownie) picking quandongs from the back of the ute, on his sheep station at Murrum. Note wattle host adjacent.
A recipe for quandong glaze is given in Neville Bonney’s book. I am yet to have a go at this, but when I do so it will be without the chilli, and with pork rather than kangaroo. I once had a nasty experience with chilli, and have avoided it ever since, and do not have a ready source of kangaroo meat. Here is Neville’s recipe:
Neville also provides tantalising recipes for quandong jam, scones, mustard, chutney and even quandong brandy liqueur.
If the quandong is to be immortalised, however, then I think it should be in this description of the "typical Australian" menu which I read in an old bushman's handbook: kangaroo-tail soup, curried wallaby and quandong pie.
I could sit down to such a meal right now, followed by a quandong liqueur .....
Postscript: Having read the above, my Queensland colleague Peter Lear wrote to remind me of that other quandong: the Silver Quondong (Elaeocarpus kirtonii). I have never seen this tree in its natural habitat, the rainforests of far North Queensland, but I do know about it. The timber is straw-coloured and takes a superb polish and is one of the world's most beautiful. I once visited a spot near Innisvale where some Silver Quondongs had been planted, but the whole area had been smashed by a tropical cyclone a few days previously, so I didn't see it at its best.
There are many mysteries about the common names of plants, and one of these is why "quondong" is the name both for a tall, graceful tree of Australia's tropical rainforest, and a short stumpy one of our arid inland, completely unrelated botanically.