Potential Domesticates: Three Australian Natives

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I am just one person, with one set of hands and eyes and limited hours in the day, and only so many good years ahead of me. That can be a bit frustrating when I look around and see so many plants with astonishing domestication potential. The hope of this post is to inspire more people to take up a plant breeding project and see where it might lead. I plan to do similar posts in the future on other groups of plants, but decided to start out focusing on Australian natives.

First up is the Lomandra, a genus not too distantly related to asparagus. The most common species in cultivation (L. longifolia) grows as a rosette of tough, strappy leaves, a bit over a meter tall. Its ability to absorb abuse has seen it planted in parking lots and school gardens for decades. I have planted drifts on the overflow of a dam wall to reduce erosion, with excellent results. Aboriginals used them for weaving, ate the starchy bases of the long leaves, young flowers, and most interestingly the ground up seeds into flour. Personally, I have nibbled on the leaf bases and found them bland and inoffensive. I tried grinding seeds but found them too hard to break down into flour, so the technique may require presoaking. Most importantly the genus contains around 51 species which vary considerably in their traits, and hybridisation between them seems to be fairly straightforward.

Next is Brachychiton, a genus that contains the spectacular flame tree from the rainforest coast and peculiar bottle trees from the semi-arid interior. The seeds are high in protein and were roasted and ground traditionally. Of more interest, young seedling trees develop a crunchy, carrot-like root that can be eaten as a vegetable. Once again, the critical trait that makes this genus worthy of attention is the relative ease with which hybrids are produced between the 31 known species.

The final genus I wish I could find time to work on is Grevillea. This massive group of 360 diverse species come in every form, from low groundcovers to towering trees like the silky oak (G. robusta). The majority of species are medium shrubs from semi-arid regions, which produce large bird-pollinated flowers that produce enormous quantities of nectar (exemplified in ornamental hybrids like “Robyn Gordon” and many others). Aborigines often collected the nectar from the flowers by shaking them into bark vessels. This genus has the potential to produce sugar crops without the need to cut and crush plant material like sugarcane and to produce it over a flowering period of many months, unlike sap crops like sugar maple. The flowers could be selected to make them less attractive to birds, even to the point of being inaccessible to anything but humans.

While many ornamental hybrids have been produced from a limited number of original species, there appear to be barriers to crossing the more convenient shrubby types (like “Robyn Gordon”) with the towering but coastally adapted silky oak, but I haven’t been able to determine if such hybrids have ever been seriously attempted. Silk oak is naturalised on my property, while the shrubby forms tend to drop dead in my heavy coastal clay. This makes growing the two side by side for hybridisation attempts difficult here, but for someone on a different soil type in a drier region, it might be a very interesting crop to develop.

Hopefully, these three examples have helped tune your senses to spot other opportunities for breeding novel crops. There are a few qualities that you should keep an eye out for. First look for previous evidence of edible uses of the plant, often in the form of foraging by indigenous peoples. Working with a species where you enjoy eating the output makes life a lot easier. Next, the ability to source multiple diverse species is invaluable. A species where the flowers and reproductive habits are easy to work with makes a difference, but technical challenges with hand pollination can be overcome with a little extra effort most of the time. Evidence of hybridisation in the genus (or even better outside it) is also very encouraging, but often it will be the case that nobody ever bothered to try before. 

It really is that easy to make history, in your own back yard, just by turning a little time and attention to a possibility that nobody ever thought to try before. You might be taking the first steps in establishing a useful plant that will continue to be grown and enjoyed for millenia. 

Grevillea Robyn Gordon- the first popular hybrid in the genus, produced as a chance seedling from a plant collector
Brachychiton populneus seeds. Watch out for the glassy hairs inside the pods.
Lomandra longifolia in full bloom. I will have to try the immature flower stalks soon, much easier for me to grow than their close relative, Asparagus.

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