Tiny fruit packs a punch

ON PADDOCK: Glen Oliver and Stuart Smith at a field of lucerne grown using recycled water.
ON PADDOCK: Glen Oliver and Stuart Smith at a field of lucerne grown using recycled water. Contributed

IF YOU have never tasted a bush tomato, you are missing out.

Sure, they're tiny, which is perhaps why Solanum centrale is also known as the Desert Raisin.

But the explosion of sweet, spicy juices that comes from biting in to one packs a big punch, and will have you wanting more.

None in my experience, however, are as sweet as those grown by horticulturalist Glen Oliver, at the Arid Zone Research Institute at Alice Springs.

Originally from Cloncurry in Queensland, Glen, 46, has been growing bush foods in Central Australia over almost two decades.

It's an old story, but he came to the Centre for a two-week holiday and stayed.

"Met my missus here in '97,” Glen said. "Two kids later ....”

Since then Glen has become something of a regional specialist in growing bush tucker commercially, winning awards for his efforts and growing a variety of edible plants at nurseries and on bush plots from Alice to Kingston, Hawker and Mt Gambier.

That included a stint pruning winery grape vines.

"Thirty-five cents per vine.

"To make your money you had to do two rows of about 150 metres long, each day.

"I didn't count 'em, I just got 'em done. And stomper bashing, taking the suckers off the trunk of the plant.”

Glen even planted 1500 seedling pines round Mt Gambier in 2005, until in 2007 a former manager coaxed him back to Alice Springs, where he took up growing bush foods for Tangentyere Council, Greening Australia and the Alice Springs Desert Park.

But at Department of Primary Industries not far from the Alice Springs Airport he stayed put, and has been there since.

In addition to bush foods, four days a week he teaches teenage VET students from Centralian College and Yirarra.

"I suppose you could call me a specialist in growing commercially, but there's a lot of other indigenous people out there who know what they're doing.

"We also have a group of women come in from Akeyullere (a service promoting indigenous knowledge and practice) who do bush medicine out the back: soaps, lip balms.”

Cousin to the regular tomato, the bush tomato is from the Solanaceae family, which includes some of the world's major food crops: potato, tomato, capsicum, eggplant and chilli.

It is a fast growing shrub that grows prolifically after fire or rain, which made it a traditional staple of the Aboriginal diet in Australia's arid zones.

While there are more than 100 species of this wild-growing tomato, only six are edible and some are toxic.

That means you have to know exactly what to look for when collecting the food wild from the bush.

While the women of Akeyullere often collect bush foods and medicine plants by hand on country, Glen is more interested in growing plants commercially.

The tiny fruit is used in sauces, dressings and chutneys, and adds a tasty flavour to meat. Several brands can be found on supermarket shelves, a development which has fostered cultivation projects across Central Australia, including plots at Rainbow Valley and Rocky Hill, some of which are running genetic trials to find the best plants for the region.

"Thornless, bigger, juicier, more fruit on the bush and taller plants,” Glen said.

"More like farming, instead of going out and wild harvesting, we're looking at methods of cropping and mechanical harvest; but there's still a lot of work to be done on it.”

For example, on some Centre properties, summer heat has taken its toll, ripening the fruit too quickly.

Glen and I are joined by Stuart Smith, manager of the Central Australian Horticultural Development Project, who drives us both to nearby trial plots.

The plots include varieties of trellised table grapes, rows of rockmelons, vigorously flowering bush potato plants, bush banana vines also on a trellis (a faintly sweet, nutty taste), and several decades-old fig trees, producing fruit that is rich and sweet. Eventually we arrive at a 600sqm plot of bush tomatoes, which Glen planted in 2013.

DPI manages the experimental plot on behalf of Dr Slade Lee, Plant Business Research leader at Southern Cross University.

There is plenty fruit on the low plants: "They go yellow, then dry brown,” Glen said. "We look after the plants, which all throw out runners.”

"It's a good trial,” Stuart said. "A project for Ninti One ... how we take something like a bush tomato and work it through the Biological Resources Act toward a commercialisation outcome.

"If you've got someone out on country and they have good bush tomato, if its commercialised there has to be a benefit sharing agreement. So they get benefit, as well as the commercialiser. It's intellectual property, acknowledging that these are traditional plants used in different ways.

"The project is working out if there are any shortfalls in that process. Also, Slade is looking for a plant that produces a lot, is upright and can be mechanically harvested.”

DPI now manages a half-million dollar Territory Government grant to develop a bush foods hub in the Centre.

Topics:  department of primary industries

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