Fancy a refreshing citrus alternative to your summer drinks and salads? Then go native with one of the cutest little fruits around.
Love your greens? Again, there’s a tasty Australian green growing wild right under our noses that is a patriotic alternative to English spinach.
Finger limes and Warrigal greens are the great unsung heroes of native Australian food, yet they are appearing on the menus of the top restaurants in the world.
Finger limes (Citrus australasica) look exactly like they sound: little fat fingers. But once you open the soft peel, the fruit tumbles out like a cascade of tiny pink or creamy pearls.
The finger lime tree typically grows on the fringes of Queensland and NSW rainforests and, as an understorey plant, thrives in the shade where it grows to about five metres. While rainforest soils tend to be rich in nutrients, the finger lime doesn’t mind if the soil is low in nutrients, and also does well in a pot.
Being a citrus, it is subject to the same pests as the exotic lemons, limes and oranges, such as aphids, caterpillars, bugs, scale and grasshoppers.
The tree is not all that striking to look at. Its dark green leaves are tiny and, like the lemon tree, shield spines of up to 25mm long. But like all members of the Rutaceae family, the leaves have many aromatic oil glands that produce a fresh, lovely smell. The little citrus flowers are mainly white but sometimes pink, and the fruit’s peel comes in a range of colours, including black, green, brown and purple.
It’s what’s inside the peel that is causing such excitement. These luscious little juice beads are like lime caviar. Use them in food as you would any lime, such as seafood, sauces, marmalades, deserts or fancy drinks.
A forager’s delight, Warrigal greens (Tetragonis tetragonioides) sprawl along the sand dunes of the east coast. Incredibly drought hardy and heat and salt-spray tolerant (as opposed to English spinach), it is an ideal leafy ground cover for sandy or degraded soils but is also adventurous enough to climb a short trellis.
The leaves are lush, soft and fleshy but the seeds are curious little hard, horny nuts so it’s best to soak them for about 24 hours or scarifying them with an emery board before planting at a depth of about 15cm. This is best done in spring and summer, or autumn in frost-free areas. Plant them about 60cm apart as they grow quickly into lush little bushes about 50cm high and up to two metres wide.
Although an annual in cooler parts of the country, it’s a prolific self-seeder so it will keep popping up in your garden. It loves full sun, except in the tropics, where it favours a moist, shady spot. You can also grow it in pots and it looks lovely spilling over the pot’s rim and trailing along your deck or verandah. You’ll be picking the leaves in about 10 weeks and, the more you pick, the bushier it becomes.
While not a spinach, the leaves have a strong spinach flavour, even tastier and saltier, but are naturally more suited to our continent. Use them in cooking as you do spinach, silverbeet or bok choy. They also make a terrific pesto when blended with pine nuts and oil.
But don’t eat them raw. They are very high in oxides, so blanch them in boiling water for about 20 seconds before eating.
They are also very high in vitamin C. When James Cook landed in Botany Bay in April 1770, he gathered up the greens and fed them to his crew to prevent scurvy. Botanist Joseph Banks also took samples of them back to England as the first Australian plant to be introduced to that land.
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