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Australian Native Plants: Cultivation and Uses in the Health and Food Industries


Australian Native Plants: Cultivation and Uses in the Health and Food Industries by Yasmina Sultanbawa and Fazal Sultanbawa, eds. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2016. Hardcover, 376 pages. ISBN: 9781482257144. $169.95.

This comprehensive text includes reviews and research related to traditional Australian herbal medicines. It is primarily about plants that have been used traditionally as food, and focuses on 12 species and one genus apparently earmarked as having the most potential for commercialization. These species may represent a nucleus around which an Australian native plant food industry is transitioning from niche status to mainstream. Indeed, the website of Australian Native Food and Botanicals (ANFAB), an Australian trade association, lists the same plants and provides fact sheets for each.1

Native food pioneer Vic Cherikoff contributes a chapter, “New Market Opportunities for Australian Indigenous Food Plants,” which includes a short history of the native food movement in Australia. Cherikoff describes his optimism for Australian cuisine in the early 1980s, which was tempered with the reality that Aussies are still hooked on imported cuisine. This book is evidence of the strides made by the industry in recent decades, and there is still potential for further expansion.

The preface acknowledges that diversity of food sources offers greater food security, but that holistic rather than reductionist approaches are required. These should be accompanied by recognition of indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights. A mission statement from an Aborigine-owned agribusiness, Red Centre Enterprises, is included. It is rather cliché-loaded and may not be appropriate here. The preface also includes references to traditional food farming practices and land management over thousands of years, as well as the critical disruption of these practices after 1788 (English colonization). Currently, there is belated recognition that Aborigines were not the simple hunter-gatherers depicted in history and anthropology texts. Historian Bill Gammage dispels these myths in his 2011 scholarly text The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Allen & Unwin) and notes that pre-colonial Aborigines had complex and permanent settlements supported by sophisticated forms of agriculture and land management. The case was made even more strongly in Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 milestone book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books).

Listed examples of established native food plant industries are not impressive. Macadamia (Macadamia spp., Proteaceae) nuts are an outstanding product; however, the industry was initially developed in Hawaii. Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum, Santalaceae) and tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia, Myrtaceae) are, indeed, successful home-grown industries but they hardly qualify as foods. Recognition is given to groups that fund, market, and support Australian foods, including the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), Landcare Australia, Robins Foods, and Coles Indigenous Food Fund.

The book is organized into two parts. Part 1, “Cultivation and Production,” consists of 13 monographs of the selected species: Anise myrtle (Syzygium anisatum, Myrtaceae), bush tomato/desert raisin (Solanum centrale, Solanaceae), Davidson’s plum (Davidsonia spp., Cunoniaceae), desert lime (Citrus glauca, Rutaceae), finger lime (Citrus australasica, Rutaceae), kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana, Combretaceae), lemon aspen (Acronychia acidula, Rutaceae), lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora, Myrtaceae), muntries (Kunzea pomifera, Myrtaceae), native pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata, Winteraceae), quandong (Santalum acuminatum), riberry (Syzygium luehmannii), and wattle seed (Acacia victoriae, Fabaceae).

Each chapter in Part 1 covers the botany, distribution, traditional uses, economic potential, agronomy, genetic improvement/propagation, biotic restraints, harvesting, processing, marketing, yield, conclusion, recommendations, and references for the discussed species. For Davidson’s plum, an extra chapter focuses on the reproductive systems of the three species in the Davidsonia genus (D. jerseyana, D. pruriens, and D. johnsonii) and their potential for domestication. The selected species represent a huge diversity in habitat and climatic requirements including the inland desert, semi-arid zones, Eastern rainforest, montane, tropical monsoon zones, and Mallee regions of southern Australia.

Part 2, “Food and Health Applications,” kicks off with an excellent review of traditional Aboriginal plant medicine by Donna Savigni, PhD, despite the occasional general statement, such as “many plants had different uses for different Aboriginal groups in different regions of Australia,” and misplaced comments referring to traditional nomadic lifestyles. These aside, the chapter is full of useful facts. For example, the leaves of Morinda citrifolia (Rubiaceae; known popularly as noni) contain the antibacterial agents arbutin and asperuloside, and root extracts from the same plant have been found to be somewhat less effective than morphine at relieving pain, but had no adverse side effects. The chapter abounds with impressive findings of this nature.

The focus shifts from ethnobotany to chapters on nutrients, phytochemicals, and biological activities of Australian plants, with attention predominantly given to the aforementioned food species. Activities related to inflammation and obesity are highlighted, as well as antimicrobial actions with respect to food preservation, a specialty of the co-editor Yasmina Sultanbawa, PhD. Sultanbawa also co-authored the chapter “Unique Flavors from Australian Plants,” in which sensory science descriptors are applied to 10 fruits from the list of 13, along with a smaller group of “herbs and spices.” Extracts are evaluated in terms of their potential as flavor ingredients, with the most attention being paid to the aromatic, essential oil-containing species on the list. The authors see great potential for incorporating these flavors into mainstream foods and beverages, and recommend further research into the characterization and identification of unique molecules with novel flavors.

A chapter on cosmetic applications of Australian plant extracts goes well beyond the 13 food plants. It includes an overview of the cosmetics industry, claims, safety and efficacy (acknowledging the issue of essential oils and their potential for allergic and hypersensitive reactions), extraction technologies, and food as skincare. The list of species covered is quite impressive; however, it could be enhanced by inclusion of Australian essential oils currently setting the world of aromatherapy alight, with such exotic names as fragonia (Agonis fragrans, Myrtaceae), honey myrtle (Melaleuca teretifolia), Kimberley heather (Calytrix exstipulata, Myrtaceae), and rosalina (Melaleuca ericifolia).2

More technical chapters follow and the focus shifts to processing technologies, such as novel delivery techniques (e.g., microencapsulation and nanotechnology), packaging, and storage with data on stability of essential oil components. Further chapters focus on marketing, value chains, and future prospects, with an appendix consisting of a mouth-watering selection of native food recipes.

The diversity of topics covered, and dual nature of the book with its shifting focus from the primary species selection to a diverse range of topics relating to plant foods and medicines is curious. However, the material provided is consistently informative and of a practical nature, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Australian food and medicine plants, novel flavor ingredients, and the development of a new cuisine that may yet take the world by storm.

—Andrew Pengelly, PhD, AHG, FNHAA
Director, Penett Botanicals, New South Wales, Australia
Adjunct Lecturer, Herbal Medicine Program
Maryland University of Integrative Health
Laurel, Maryland


  1. Fact Sheets. Australian Native Food and Botanicals website. Available at: Accessed September 22, 2017.
  2. Trevena G. A Guide to Australian Native Essential Oils. 4th ed. Byron Bay, NSW, Australia: Essentially Australia; 2016.