The Bunya-Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii)
by Byron Joel, oaktreedesigns.com.au
A mature bunya pine showing classic conical growing habit
Of all the striking aspects of the subtropical regions of Australia’s east coast, the landforms, the climate, the exotic fauna… few offer as immediately impressive a sight as a fully mature Bunya pine. Reaching a recorded height of 45m, with trunks like a sauropod’s leg and sporting cones bigger than a bowling ball, few things say ancient like a Bunya Pine.
The Bunya (bunya-bunya, bunyi, booni-booni or bonya in various aboriginal dialects), while indeed still a conifer, is not a true pine. It belongs to an ancient family of coniferous trees known as Araucariaceae. The greater Araucariaceae family, literally like something out of Jurassic Park, were distributed almost worldwide during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, becoming entirely extinct in the northern hemisphere toward the end of the Cretaceous and now found exclusively in the southern hemisphere, survived by approximately 41 species across three genera. Other members of the family include the iconic Kauri of New Zealand , the Norfolk Island Pine and Australia’s other ”living fossil” the Wollemi Pine. The Bunya shares the same genus with another good food source, Araucaria araucana, the Monkey Puzzle tree of Chile.
Although its timber has been discovered to be ideal for use in the production of acoustic musical instruments, its real potential comes in its already ancient role (and bright future) as a human food source.
The Bunya was of immense cultural significance to the life and food security of the Aboriginal peoples who lived in proximity to it. Every year the trees would produce a small yield of nuts and every three years or so a bumper crop so large as to support clan gatherings of hundreds and very possibly thousands of Aboriginal people over the harvesting months. It was at these gatherings, feasting on the nuts, that they would perform activities such as extra-tribal ceremonies, settle disputes, trade goods and arrange marriages.
The value of the nut as food was not lost on the settling Europeans, reminding them of the Chestnuts from home.
The cones shed their seeds which are sweet before being perfectly ripe, and after that, resemble roasted chestnuts in taste. They are plentiful once in three years, and when the ripening season arrives… the aborigines assemble in large numbers from a great distance around, and feast upon them. Each tribe has its own particular set of trees, and of these, each family has a certain number allotted, which are handed down from generation to generation with great exactness… The food seems to have a fattening effect on the aborigines, and they eat large quantities of it after roasting it at the fire… Contrary to their usual habits, they sometimes store up the Bunya nuts, hiding them in a water hole for a month or two. — J. Maiden in ‘Forest Flora of New South Wales’ 1889
A bumper crop of Bunya cones
A council sign in Perth warning of the
potential dangers of falling cones
Aboriginal peoples traditionally ate the nuts raw, roasted or stored them underground in wet mud, which is believed to have improved the flavor as well as extended their length of availability. Europeans used to boil them with their corned beef. In fact to this day a favorite means of preparation is to boil them in brine, giving their otherwise nutty, warm flavour a salty, savoury edge. Boiling is the recommended means of preparation, as methods like roasting tend to dry the flesh out. An exact nutritional breakdown of the nut is hard to find. Wikipedia (yes I know, I’m sorry…) states the nuts are ”40% water, 40% complex carbohydrates, 9% protein, 2% fat, 0.2% potassium, 0.06% magnesium” and contains approx. 32 calories. The flesh of the nut is very similar to that of the Chestnut — low oil, high starch. Being gluten free, perhaps there is a market for Bunya flour?
Bunyas can be unpredictable in their germination. On a recent trip to the Australian National Arboretum in Canberra I spoke to Adam Burgess, a fellow Araucariaceae enthusiast and head curator, to help shed some light on the subject.
Once planted, a seed may take one month to germinate. It may take eighteen. They have what’s called a cryptogeal seed formation. Upon sprouting, the seed sends a shoot downward, usually until it encounters a harder surface. There it forms a tuber. This tuber can sit dormant for months at a time, waiting, it is assumed, for optimal growing conditions. From here the roots and stem develop.
Up to 500 times the mass of a regular pine nut
Adam also spoke to the need for further investigation into the Araucariaceae at large.
To be honest there’s a gaping hole in the research. We really don’t know that much about them. Take the Wollemi (Wollemia nobilis) for instance. It’s been mass marketed to the public but by asexual propagation (cuttings) with extremely mixed results. Research bodies are only just now starting to do more thorough work with seedlings and asking more questions. Do other Araucariaceae have this tuber-producing habit? What is its true purpose? Do other species’ tubers hold potential value as food? There’s a whole undiscovered world underneath these trees. It’s interesting — fun — this kind of research and observing how large and powerful a Bunya Pine can get. They can be so unpredictable. One day you throw a Bunya nut in the compost and see nothing for six months then suddenly there’s a nine inch tap root poking out. Obviously it had stalled, waiting for optimum conditions but as to what those parameters are, we’re still unsure.
Dozens of nuts per cone
When establishing a tree of such eventual size and weight a good root system is a seriously important point to consider. When many large trees sprout, Bunya included, they send down a large main tap root, or ‘radical’ root, far into the ground, primarily as a point of anchorage. Failure to establish a healthy, deep tap root can see trees toppled over by forces like wind, which they may otherwise have been impervious to. Often, common tree nursery techniques are not so appreciative of these points — raising their to-be-large trees in pots too small, for too long, causing root binding and rendering their tap roots all but useless. There are ways around this. Two good systems come to mind.
One: Rocket Pots and Racks. Developed by Australian horticulturalist, Peter Lawton, the rocket pot and accompanying flood rack system is a way to grow tree crops in a regular nursery environment while ensuring that the usual issues of becoming root bound are avoided. Trees are germinated in pots with many holes in them. Once the tree’s roots, taproot included, reach one of the holes they are ”air pruned” and stop growing, effectively going into a stasis. Later, when the trees are planted, those roots, with their delicate growing tips still intact, continue their growing process outward, away from the stem, unimpeded by the impervious plastic membrane of most pots — those that send roots around and around in search for extra space to grow. Instead of the usual overhead sprinkler systems, flood irrigation is provided, encouraging the roots to chase the water downward as it recedes during the drainage cycle.
Two: Direct seeding. Ideally, I believe Bunya should be direct seeded. Its unpredictable sprouting time, unusual tuber-forming habit and variable root production can make for a hard time judging when a seedling needs potting on or planting out. Efforts taken to minimize predation by rodents, etc., and protection from the harsher elements, will of course boost strike rates. Try setting up staked, plastic tree guards on bare, weed-free ground. Place a bunya seed on the bare ground and cover with simulated forest litter, leaves, straw or even perhaps pieces of the Bunya cone casing. Safe from rodents and protected from the elements, this should allow the seeds to germinate at their own rate and send a strong, healthy tap root straight down as deep as they can. Water as the site conditions suggest.
A bunya sapling at the PRI Zaytuna Farm
This species’ wide potential range is one of the reasons it is so exciting. Originally spread throughout the once much moister Australasian land masses, it has in recent geological history been refined to the humid subtropics of southeastern Queensland and northern New South Wales (Brisbane – 27.4679° S), and isolated pockets existing in north Queensland (Townsville – 19.2564° S). However, due to its obvious attraction to botanists, specimens have found their way into parks and botanic gardens worldwide for over 200 years. I have personally seen it fruiting as far south (poleward) as the Royal Botanic Gardens in cool temperate Hobart, Tasmania (42.8806° S). Mr. Geoff Lawton has told me he has seen it in semi-arid Cairo, Egypt (30.0500° N) and I have also seen it fruiting happily in the classically mediterranean climate of Perth, Western Australia (31.9522° S). There are reported Bunya in California, Mexico, Dublin, Portugal, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Indonesia…. That’s quite a spread.
Adam Burgess adds:
‘Here in Canberra we’ve planted over six hundred Bunya seedlings in a monocultural planting and here we can experience extremes from -10ºC in winter to 30ºC in summer, all on a relatively dry site in a part of the world which has quite unpredictable rainfall — and these seedlings are doing very well here. There are local mature trees here over a hundred years old, planted by ex-governors and botanists, and they fruit heavily every few years. It seems all but impervious to the frost, even when young. It gets a shock, and its foliage turns a copper green/brown, but it soon bounces back. As far as we can tell it is immune to Phytophthora issues, whereas the Monkey Puzzle and Wollemi can’t handle it at all. From the full tropics to the cold temperate and everything in between, they are ridiculously hardy.
Of all the many ideas relevant to Permaculture, of all the subsets of information we explore, trial and discuss, it is this author’s opinion that perennial staple crops are amongst the most important — deserving more attention and recognition as a major point of transition. It behooves us to move from an annual, grain-based, staple crop agriculture, with all its inputs, fragilities and destructive side effects, into a (relatively) low input, high yield, multi generational, perennial staple crop polyculture system. Besides the immediate yield of food there are of course the added ecologically restorative benefits like erosion control, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, etc. All these factors have been well discussed. Given their size (and potential ballistic dangers), bunya are ideal for the Zone 4/5 edge. Imagine vast groves of them established along the fringes of a city or village’s farthest edges of activity. Hyper-hardy once established, they could be all but ignored and returned to, if need be, only during times of harvest (wearing helmets!) to collect the starch-rich staple nuts, and then brought back to town, processed or roasted and eaten on the spot. Who knows, it’s just a thought!
A young bunya at the PRI Zaytuna Farm
Whichever humid climate zone you may find yourself in, there is a chance that a bunya pine has made its way there. It may be as easy as going to a local retail nursery, or you may have to go and enquire at the nearest botanical gardens. However you do it, it’s well worth the while of future inhabitants of the area in which you live that specimens be found and awareness of this amazing tree ally be raised.
Watch this space for a recent interview I did with Beverly Hands, the traditional Aboriginal caretaker of the Bunya Pine and re-initiator of the ancient Bunya festival.
- The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia, Louis Glowinski, Hatchet Publishing, 1991
- Mabberley, D. J. 2001 ‘Bidwill of the bunya-bunya’, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araucaria_bidwillii, (I know, I know… Please forgive me…)
- Chisholm, A. H. 1920. The Bunya Range Excursion, Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union,
- Discovering Fruit and Nuts, Susanna Lyle, Landlinks Press, 2006
- J. Maiden in ‘Forest Flora of New South Wales’ 1889