The desert quandong (scientific name Santalum acuminatum) is part of the Santalaceae family, which includes sandalwood. It is a hemiparasitic species that can be found over a vast area in the south of Australia and the deserts in the center of the continent. It is also known as the native peach or the quandong, the same name sometimes designates the fruit only. It is one of the best known and popular types of bush food, and efforts have been made to domesticate the plant. It is famous for the special taste of its fruit.
The desert quandong can be classified as a large shrub or a small tree and it can reach a maximum height of 6 m. It grows upright and the branches are covered with an irregular dark grey bark. In some cases, young plants emerge from root suckers and can be found around a mature one. While the main branches grow straight up, the smaller ones can droop towards the ground. Leaves have a leathery appearance, with a pointed tip. Their color is either pale green or between yellow and green, with an ovate or slender shape. Leaves grow in opposite pairs and have a length between 4.5 and 11.5 cm, on short stems of 5 to 10 mm.
The flowers have a strong fragrance and develop on stems. Despite their small size, of no more than 2 or 3 mm, they have multiple colors, with a red or brown center and a white or green edge. The fruits are covered with a wax-like substance and have a red or yellow color. They are small, about 2 to 2.5 cm in diameter, and the tree will produce the first harvest after four years. The fruit consists of a thin layer of about 3 mm of flesh, with the seed protected by a very hard nutty shell. It is known as a drupe and matures in late spring or early summer, when it can have a vivid red color.
The desert quandong is hemiparasitic, like most of the species related to it. The term designates plants that are not fully parasites. They have green leaves because they don't suck sugars from their host and depend on it only for water and nutrients. Hemiparasites have a specific system of roots, known as the haustorium, which is able to get xylem sap by attaching itself to the root of the host plant. The desert quandong is able to be a parasite of many types of plants, from grasses and herbs to legumes and shrubs. However, it favors trees like Acacia and Casuarina, which are able to fix nitrogen. The plant is capable of attaching itself to multiple hosts at the same time.
Fruits, nuts, seeds.
The fruit of desert quandong has a sour taste that can be compared to the one of rhubarb, apricot or peach. This is why it is known as the wild peach or the desert peach in some areas of South Australia. It is commercially used to flavour various dishes, especially sweet and savoury recipes. It is also known for the high content of antioxidants.
The fruit was consumed for a long time by the natives because of the pulp rich in vitamin C and the mixture of essential oils in the seed. Like all related species, the wood of the desert quandong has antibacterial properties, which are particularly potent in the roots. Natives took advantage of this to prepare an extract that was used externally against infectious skin diseases.
The desert quandong is one of the best known bush foods and it was a major source of food for the Aborigines of Australia. Males of the Pitjantjara people in the center of the continent even ate it as an alternative to meat, whenever they were unable to hunt properly. However, it was the women of the Pitjantjara that were tasked with harvesting and preparing the quandong fruits in the area of the Everard Ranges. The natives collected the fruits when they were fully ripe, with an intense red color. They ate them raw or dried a part of the harvest for later consumption. Pitjantjara women gathered the fruits in bark dishes, discarded the stones and made the pulp into a rolled ball. The ball was then transported back to the tribe and shared with the other members.
The desert quandong was also popular among Australian natives because of its medicinal value. They used the plant to treat numerous diseases. As a purgative, they brewed a tea from the desert quandong. A different beverage was prepared after infusing a powder made from the ground roots, which was then used to treat rheumatism. Another traditional remedy was a primitive type of cream made from crushed leaves and saliva, applied on boils, sores and skin wounds. Skin problems were also treated with the essential oils found inside the seeds, which were turned into an ointment. Some of the tribes crushed the seeds and used them as hair oils, while others ate the kernels, which are edible. Since the emus eat a lot of quandong fruits, their droppings usually contain a large number of undigested seeds. Aborigines took advantage of it to collect the kernels with ease.
Many of the early settlers in Australia were shepherds who were quick to realize the value of the plant. They were away for long periods of time and their everyday food was the damper, a traditional Australian soda bread. They discovered that adding quandong leaves to dampers improved their taste and was a welcome change from the regular ones. Farmers also valued the fruits and used to go on a picnic with their entire family in order to harvest them from the wild, during the season that lasts from October to February. The fruits were used to prepare pies, jams and chutneys, after peeling. These were especially popular in years of drought or during depression, when the locals lacked the money to buy other fruits.
Scientists now believe that the desert quandong has a very old history in Australia and has been present on the continent even at the time when there was still a link to Antarctica. Fossils of the plant have been found in coal seams in Southern Victoria, with an estimated age of 40 million years.
The fruit was very useful for the first European settlers and explorers of Australia. It protected them from scurvy, since its content of vitamin C is higher than the one in oranges. Today, it is easy to preserve the fruit because it maintains its full flavour in dried or frozen form for at least 8 years.
The wood also has a special aroma, which was used by the native tribesmen to enhance their traditional smoking ceremonies. The seeds were used by rural kids as pieces for Chinese Checker and other similar games.
Since the seed is very rich in oils, it is extremely flammable and can be burnt to provide light, like a candle. Some of the oils are present in the wood as well, which makes it useful as a stick in the traditional friction method to light a fire.
The timber is also oily, with a hard texture. It is not used often, but cabinets and various other furniture pieces can be crafted from it. It is not as fragrant as other types of sandalwood but has a stronger structure. The nuts can be used in the manufacture of various crafted ornaments and necklaces, due to their interesting wrinkled pattern.
The desert quandong can grow in many habitats and tolerates difficult conditions. It is normally found on soils with good drainage and a poor content of nutrients. It resists drought and even frost after it is fully mature, and it tolerates salt as well. It can grow in the shade but enjoys sunny locations.
Despite domestication efforts, it is considered a difficult tree to cultivate and propagate. Fresh seeds tend to be extremely dormant and only about 5% of them germinate. After one year, the chance increases to about 30% but it only reaches 35% after three years. In order to start the germination process, the seed coating has to be cracked, this is common to other species with a hard shell. This is not hard to do, but the testa has to be broken with care. After cracking, the seed can be planted in moist soil. Germination can start in one to four months. It is best sowed during the winter, since the temperature that gives the best results is around 15 degrees C. As soon as the cotyledons become hard, the small plant can be moved to a free drained soil and a mixture of release fertilizer with a slow or medium concentration. It will develop roots using the resources of the seed.
After the roots are established, the plant requires a host. Since the quandong also gets some nutrients from its own roots, the host should not be a much bigger plant, which can occupy most of the pot and deprive it of space. Some good choices are clover seeds or cuttings of couch grass, which can be placed in the pot at the same time when the quandong is moved there. However, be careful to avoid weeds. Native Australian grass species are great choices, as well as pea flowering plants. For best results, make sure that the desert quandong is in range to at least two different hosts and can reach their roots. It needs full sun and enough space between the other trees to develop its normal shape. When growing quandong, you will also have to take care of the host species if you want the plant to thrive. Since its roots can extend to about 10 meters, every plant in that radius has to be healthy.
This native fruit has a similar taste to other fruits with a stone in the middle, such as the apricot. The plant has always been very important for the aboriginal Australians and plays a major part in their myths and beliefs. This is because of the special beauty of the tree, which has a striking red fruit and thick green leaves. The fruit is a very rich source of vitamin C, with double the amount found in oranges, and it also has a high amount of vitamin C precursors and iron.
Harvesting from the wild is still the most important way to gather this fruit. Both the raw fruits and the nuts can be harvested from the tree, while the nut can also be collected from the droppings of emus. European colonists quickly discovered that the tree was not easy to cultivate and the main source was in the wild. Years with abundant rain will guarantee a large production of fruits. The natives took advantage of this to store large amounts of dried flesh for several years.
Normally, one plant yields between 10 and 25 kg of fruits. However, 40% of this weight is the nutty kernel. The flesh can be sold raw or dried, while the seed is edible in raw, roasted or salted form.