Marine foraging: finding 'bush tucker' around Sydney’s coastal regions
By ALEC SMART
Australia’s native environs provide a bounty of fruits, leaves, seeds, tubers, funghi and seaweeds that can be harvested for ‘bush tucker’ (wild food). Here we provide a few examples and suggestions for their use.
Golden Kelp - Ecklonia radiata
Golden-brown in colouring, golden kelp grows in dense forests close to the shore. Best served in long strips with noodles in a soup or stir-fry. To dry, rinse in fresh water then hang leaves on clothesline in sunshine. Cut up with scissors and store in airtight containers away from light.
Sea lettuce - Ulva lactuca
Light green and very thin but a chewy texture. Grows on rocks in tidal zone. Unlike other seaweeds, it is permitted to trim lettuce-like leaves of live plants. Best dried or fresh in salads or sushi.
Dead Man’s Fingers aka Velvet Horns - Codium fragile
Resembles long green fingers. Segments can detach and reattach. Typically makes its home on pebbles or oysters and other shellfish in tidal zone. Best eaten raw (disintegrates if cooked), sliced into a lemon-dressed salad with tomatoes.
Bladderwrack aka Red fukus - Fucus vesiculosus
The macrocystis group of seaweeds includes several species of brown algae that are among the giant kelps that grow in huge underwater forests. They typically have long stems and blade-like leaves that grow out of pneumatocysts – individual gas bladders (hence the name ‘bladder’ wrack), which help the plants stay afloat.
High in vitamins and minerals, they are also beneficial in the treatment of hyper-thyroidism due to their high iodine content, however, bladderwrack is not recommended for those taking blood thinning medication, because it can accentuate the dosage.
Seaweed should only be gathered once it has washed ashore, with a legal limit of 20kg per day.
Coast wattle - Acacia sophorae
Common on south-eastern Australian beaches in sand dunes and sandy scrub, this species of wattle has broad (not sickle-shaped) leaves with long veins. The green pods are roasted or steamed before seeds extracted like peas. Don’t eat the actual pod shells. Sydney coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia) and Sweet wattle (Acacia suaveolens) also have edible pod seeds.
Native millet aka Panic grass – Panicum decompositum
A coarse grass that prefers damp sandy or clay soils and grows up to a metre high in tussocks. The leaves are broad with sharp edges and taper to a point. Seeds, when ground with water, form a sticky dough that is ideal for baking damper bread.
Vegetables + herbs
Warrigal greens or Botany Bay spinach - Tetragonia tetragonioides
Grows in dry sandy soil in direct sunlight on beaches and salt marshes. Raw or cooked, the young, smaller leaves are a delicious alternative to spinach (old leaves taste bitter) but best eaten blanched.
Pigweed – Purslane munyeroo
The flower buds, leaves and stems are all edible and highly nutritious. These can be eaten raw, but blanching or stir-frying softens fibres and makes them more palatable. The tiny black seeds, when shaken out, can be ground into flour and baked as dampers.
Marsh cress – Rorippa palustris
Grows well in aquatic marshland or light woodland in damp sandy or clay soils, to around a metre tall with leaves up to 30cm in length. Makes an excellent watercress substitute, the young leaves, stems and young seedlings can be eaten raw in salads or cooked.
Sea celery – Apium prostratum
There are two types of sea celery in Australia, headland and mangrove variants, that grow in those respective environments, the latter with longer leaves. Their leaves resemble and taste like common celery (Apium graveolens), albeit with an additional parsley flavour, and stems are also eaten.
Pigface - Carpobrotus rossii
A common international plant with six species native to Australia, pigface is a runner found on sand dunes in clusters around two metres in width. With thick green podlike leaves, a bright pink-purple flower that resembles a daisy, and a red-purple fruit, surprisingly, they are all edible. The leaves, the juice of which soothes stings or sunburn like aloe, can be eaten raw or cooked – preferably roasted.
The fruit, inside an edible skin, consists of small brown seeds surrounded by a sticky white pulpy flesh, which tastes like strawberries or figs with a slight salty aftertaste. However, large quantities have a laxative effect.
Fruits + berries
Kangaroo apple - Solanum
Two different species go by the name kangaroo apple, attributed to the leaves shaped like kangaroo footprints. With a star-shaped violet flower, the egg-shaped fruits – which have medicinal properties as well as high concentrations of vitamin C – look like smaller versions of their relatives, the Roma or plum tomatoes. They should only be eaten when ripe red (never immature green).
Geebung - Persoonia
Over 90 species of geebung grow in Australia, some with broad leaves, others slender, even spike-like, and their fruits taste like ‘sweet cotton wool’. The oval yellow-brown fruits, the size of a grape, are best eaten when ripe and fallen from the tree. Discard the skin and consume the soft flesh, although there’s a hard stone inside.
Seaberry saltbush – Rhagodia candolleana
A dense shrub up to two metres in height with small white flowers, its flat, dark red berries (popular among birds) are edible but slightly bitter – best scattered in green salads. The bright green spade-shaped leaves are also salty (hence the name ‘saltbush’) and can be cooked like spinach.
Ruby saltbush – Enchylaena tomentosa
Typically found growing in saltmarshes or sand dunes, this low-growing shrub, about 1 metre in height and width, fruits and flowers all year round. It produces edible berries about 5-8mm in diameter, ranging in colour from yellow to red, that taste salty-sweet.
Native raspberry aka Small leaf bramble – Rubus parvifolius
Two species grow in Australia, but parvifolius has the most succulent berries. A climbing shrub with prickly stems, bright green crinkly leaves and small pink flowers that grows well in semi-shaded forests. The bright red fruits are very sweet and ideal for jam making. Leaves can be boiled into an astringent tea to treat diarrhea, menstrual cramps or influenza.
Apple berries - Billardiera
This small climbing shrub, of which there are around 40 species, grows in coastal forests where it tolerates a wide variety of conditions, even beneath eucalypts, although it prefers damp soil. The fruit, oblong and covered in fine hairs like Kiwi fruit, hangs down and grows to a length of 30mm and width of 10mm. Green and purple in appearance, the fruit turns yellow when ripe and tastes like stewed apple with a hint of aniseed.
Native gooseberry – Physalis angulata
Widespread throughout temperate and tropical regions of the world, this herbaceous shrub, which grows up to two metres in height, is regarded in some parts as an invasive weed. Often found along river systems in shaded areas, its oval leaves have characteristic edges resembling small fangs. It produces a thin, star-shaped pod all year round in which grows a small berry that turns from green to light yellow when fully ripened. The berry tastes sweet but tart.
Coast beard-heath aka native currants – Leucopogon parviflorus
Found on sandy dunes or rocky cliff faces, and ranging between 1-5 metres in height, this hardy shrub has small star-shaped furry white flowers (hence ‘bearded’) and thin, pointed green leaves. It produces a mass of small, spherical berries with a hard stone inside that ripen from green to a fleshy bright white. Resembling a tiny eyeball, they taste like apples, but the internal stone takes up 90 per cent of the fruit.
Coast Beard Heath
Sap + nectar
Banksia – Banksia
There are an estimated 170 species of Banksia trees, generally found distributed along coastal regions, some growing up to 30 metres high. Its most distinctive feature is an unusual flowering spike, a cob with hundreds of beautiful, brightly coloured follicle flowers attached. Ranging between yellow, orange and red (some a spectacular combination of these colours), when ripe, sweet nectar abounds in each of the flowers. The nectar can be literally sucked off the flowers or by soaking the entire cob in water to make a sweet drink.
Acacia gum - Acacia
Acacia, commonly known as wattle and native to both Africa and Australasia, has long been used for a variety of foods and medicinal treatments by Egyptians, Africans and Australian Aboriginals. The golden-brown sap – also known as Gum Arabic - is a complex, health-beneficial compound and utilised in food production as ‘E414’. Naturally sweet, and known to some Aboriginal peoples as ‘bush toffee’, it ranges in size from a pea to a tennis ball as it oozes like honey from the tree trunk. Chew like candy.
Tubers + rhizomes
Wild parsnip – Trachymene incisa
Formerly in the Apiaceae family, which includes carrots and parsley, but now in Araliaceae, this 80cm high perennial native herb has much in common with commercial parsnip, including the pretty white flowers. Growing in dry, sclerophyll forest, with a preference for sandy soils and rock crevices, the tap root – around 5–10 cm long – is edible either raw or cooked and tastes like parsnip.
Sea club rushes aka sea bulrushes – Bolboschoenus caldwellii
Favouring damp sandy soils in marshlands or light woodlands, this sedge grows up to 1.5 metres tall and produces brown flowerheads consisting of spikelets in clusters. From the Greek word bolbos (bulb), the edible rhizome has a sweet coconut flavour when it’s white. The roots are also edible, but the skin can be tough.
Sea Club Rush
Bulrushes – Typha orientalis
Found around boggy areas or clustered semi-submerged in tidal marshes, the rhizomes can be roasted then ground into a flour for cakes and dampers. New shoots and young flower stems, when eaten fresh, are edible and best steamed. The seed heads can also be ground and added to rhizome flour for baking.
Vanilla lily – Arthropodium milleflorum
Growing up to 130cm high, with a distinctive vanilla fragrance, this lily is found in well-drained clay soils in the sloping foothills of light woodland and alpine areas. The fleshy tubers can be eaten raw or roasted (either bitter or slightly sweet in flavour) and the flowers, consisting of six white-lilac petals, purple ‘anthers’ and distinctive white/cream hairy filaments, are also edible.
Bungwall fern aka Swamp fern – Blechnum indicum
Commonly found growing in sandy soils around swamp areas, the stems and rhizome (rootstalks) are the edible parts of this common fern. After cleaning, the white rhizome can be eaten raw, but it is better added to stews (tasting like small potatoes), or roasted, after which it can also be ground into a coarse flour for making dampers.
Native bread aka Blackfellow’s bread – Laccocephalum mylittae
Among a group of ‘fire fungi’ that capitalises on the aftermath of a bushfire to reproduce in the rich carbon soils, and is typically found alongside fallen logs. It was known in early colonial times as Blackfellow’s bread because it resembles a loaf and was favoured among Indigenous Australians. Eaten raw or cooked, it is identified by its above-ground cap - flat to dome-shaped, smooth and with pores not gills - up to 200mm in diameter.
The submerged body – the edible ‘bread’ to which the cap is attached - can grow to the size of a rugby ball and weigh up to 20kg. This sclerotium has a dark brown to black skin and a white, marbled interior, and although it will last up to a month underground, is best eaten fresh when it is soft and rubbery, before it older and tougher.
Puffball – Lycoperdon perlatum or Calvatia gigantea
Coloured white to light brown with a brown peak (that becomes an opening on maturity), and ranging between 3 to 20cm in diameter, the round white globes perched on stalks are found in woodland and on grassy lawns, such as gold courses. Puffballs tend to grow in groups of three to ten in a variety of alkaline-soiled forests (often among eucalypt trees) and on lawns, such as golf courses, where they recur in the same spot for years.
Choose the larger varieties (see warning below). The edible globe should be eaten young when it is soft (some reports suggest they have a mild prawn flavour), because they become inedible as they age. The puffball can be consumed like common field mushrooms – sliced and fried or cooked in soups.
Beware inhaling the spores of mature puffballs – the tiny cloud that is ejected from the top vent (usually by raindrops) have miniature spines that can irritate the lungs.
Warning: take caution when gathering puffballs and rely on expert advice! Because the four edible varieties - Lycoperdon, Calvatia, Bovista, Vascellum – can resemble highly toxic species, some of which can kill you.
Larger puffballs can, to the unfamiliar eye, resemble Scleroderma citrinum, known as the common earthball or pigskin poison puffball, consumption of which can make you very ill. Lycoperdon pyriforme, the pear-shaped puffball, is the species that most resembles the toxic earthball, but whereas the puffball has a single vent on top through which its spores are dispersed when it reaches maturity, the earthball just disintegrates to release the spores. The earthball has firmer, less spongy flesh and its interior turns darker earlier in development than puffballs. Nor does the earthball have a stem but is attached to the soil by cords – so it effectively sits on the ground – and the exterior is often ochre yellow (puffballs are typically white) with irregular ‘warts’.
Also, avoid the smaller edible puffball species - the marble-sized Bovista and the slightly larger Vascellum (which gathers in clusters and are softer with a powdery surface that can easily rub off) – both of which favour grassy parks and paddocks.
This is because two highly toxic species also first emerge from the ground as white round buttons that can be mistaken by the untrained eye.
These are Amanita muscaria, aka fly agaric (which develops a characteristic scarlet cap and white spots when it matures); and the infamous deathcap, Amanita phalloides, an introduced and invasive species (which turns olive-brown and spreads its cap as it matures), consumption of which can be fatal!
Caution: when gathering wild flora heed these warnings!
* Never eat plants from an area sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.
* Avoid plants close to run-offs for industrial effluent or near stormwater drains (especially after rainfall).
* Wild herbs absorb nutrients from soil, which includes toxic heavy metals if they’re on a former industrial site.
* Take extreme care when gathering wild mushrooms (some species will kill you) and consult an expert.
* Be mindful that you’re collecting from a complex ecosystem on which native insects, birds, reptiles and mammals also rely for food. Take only enough for one feed and be careful not to damage the surroundings.
* Ensure you have permission to harvest native plants. Foraging on private land is legal with the owner’s permission, but it is forbidden to remove plants from national parks, reserves and state forests. Laws differ between states, but severe fines and custodial sentences may result, especially concerning protected plants.
Diego Bonetto, professional forager.
Forage to Feast
Jake Cassar, renowned bushcraft and bush foods teacher.
Koori Kinnections, Aboriginal-owned and employed company focusing on education and bush foods.
Sea Lettuce & macadamia rice paper rolls
A Sydney seaside twist to an Asian fast-food favourite. These rolls are healthy, fresh and fun to make with kids. Set up a rolling station and away you go. These lend plenty of room to create your own version with things like avocado strips, julienne vegetables and grilled tofu.
Makes 8 rice paper rolls
60g rice vermicelli or rice noodles
8 rice paper wrappers
½ cup of roasted and roughly chopped macadamias
2 cups of sea lettuce washed & chopped
2 large iceberg lettuce leaves, chopped finely
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. sweet chilli sauce
Sweet chilli sauce to serve
1. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add rice noodles and boil for 3 to 5 minutes, or until al dente, and drain. Rinse thoroughly with cold water so they don't stick together. Let them cool.
2. Clean Sea lettuce of any sand or sea life, trim it into smallish pieces and sauté in a shallow pan with a dash of lime juice and Sesame oil until it becomes soft. Set aside and let cool.
3. Mix all ingredients except rice paper in a large bowl.
4. Fill a large shallow bowl with hot water. Dip one wrapper into the water for 10 seconds to soften. Lay wrapper on a wet tea towel on the bench and place a handful of the noodle mix across the centre leaving about 5cm of the wrapper uncovered on each side.
5. Fold in the uncovered sides of the wrapper inwards then tightly roll to enclose the filling. Repeat with remaining rolls.
6. Serve fresh with sweet chilli sauce.
Seaweed recipe by food designer Marnee Fox of Forage To Feast, in collaboration with professional forager Diego Bonetto. From Diego’s forthcoming book Eat Weeds (Thames & Hudson 2022).