Santalum acuminatum, also known as the Desert Quandong or Wild Peach, is a nutritious bush tucker. Fruit ripens with warm northerly winds between August and October. Quandong fruit is very high in vitamin C and can be harvested when fresh or dried. Nuts contain rich edible kernels with antibacterial properties.
Quandongs typically flower in December.
The desert quandong, native peach or bush peach, Santalum acuminatum (R.Br.), is a favourite Aboriginal food found throughout the arid and semi-arid zones of southern Australia extending into the centre of the continent. Like most plants of the sandalwood (Santalaceae) family, it is hemiparasitic, relying in its early stages on a range of host plants for water and soil nutrients but not for sugars. It is a small shade-giving tree that varies in height from one to six metres. Flowers appear in summer forming fruit that ripen the following spring and summer.
Depending on the season, trees are laden with bright red mature fruits that vary in size from 15–25 mm diameter with flesh 3–5 mm thick. The fruit is dry-textured and tart-tasting but the sugar content increases when they are dried. Like many wild fruits, quandongs are rich in polyphenols, have a greater antioxidant capacity than the blueberry, and are efficient inhibitors of pancreatic lipase. The fruit is rich in Vitamin E components, magnesium, zinc, selenium and iron. The central stone contains a large single kernel that is rich in oils and protein. The bark and leaves also have anti-microbial properties. While individual trees are common, particularly in sandy or rocky country, quandongs are not evenly distributed across southern Australia but cluster in groves throughout their range. Quandongs and their use by Aboriginal groups have been documented in museum collections and historical records since first European settlement in arid and semi-arid areas across the continent, including throughout the MDB (the focus of our research here).
There are several well-known centres in the MDB, including West Wyalong on the Lachlan River catchment, central NSW. The name quandong is the anglicised version of the Wiradjuri word guwandhang, although according to Wiradjuri Aboriginal people in West Wyalong, a town within our study area, wyalong is the local Indigenous word for a hard-shelled nut or quandong. They grow in clusters on the edge of forests, in patches of open scrub, and in groves on sandy rises. When Thomas Mitchell travelled along the Murray River in 1838, he noted that wherever he camped on raised, dry ground, he found abundant groves of quandongs and anticipated their commercial use. When Charles Sturt travelled up the Murray River in 1844, Nadbuck, one of his Aboriginal guides collected a large quantity of quandongs for the party. Sturt later regretted that they had not saved more to ward off the scurvy that affected them further on in the trip. Quandong nuts were also found cached in a large rock shelter at Puritjarra, Central Australia.
Dreaming stories often reference a symbiotic relationship between quandongs and emus. The birds eat the fruit in large quantities, swallowing the nuts. Their stone-filled crops begin the digestive process so that as they wander the landscape they excrete a ready supply of quandong nuts whose germination is assisted by fertiliser. Aboriginal people recognised the role of the emu in aiding their distribution.
The location of quandong groves was well known to local Aboriginal groups who harvested the fruit in quantities for short or long-term use. The fruit can be eaten raw but dried fruit was particularly valued because of its sweetness and its ability to be preserved and readily transported. Dried fruit was peeled from fallen quandongs and excess fruit dried, pounded and rolled into balls or cakes for later use. This dried fruit could then be reconstituted with water into a paste that formed an important food source in times of scarcity: ‘It’s really good when you don’t have meat’—Pompey Everard..
Inside the fruit is a single, large round nut with a very hard casing; this contains a large edible kernel about the size of a pea which was highly prized as food, raw or roasted, or was ground into an oily paste or salve valued for its capacity to ease rheumatism and aching joints or to relieve tooth ache and gum boils (Beryl Carmichael of Menindee, personal communication). The crushed kernels were also used among Barkandji women of the Darling River as skin cream and hair conditioner (Dayle Doyle and Dot Stephens of Menindee, personal communication).
The nut is very hard to crack and hitting it with a hammer risks pulverising and mixing the kernel with nut fragments. This is not a trivial concern in Aboriginal Australia. Teeth are an extremely valuable possession that must last a lifetime. Although their considerable wear, with ensuing abscesses and tooth loss, is well documented, the prevalence of tooth fractures (as might be expected when chewing food with large, hard shards) is low. Given the high value of the kernels for food, medicinal and cosmetic purposes, extracting the kernels warranted specialised implements located in productive areas in order to capitalise on the seasonality and distribution of the fruit.