30/04/2006 – Jude Fanton
Seeking mushrooms, picking berries, going nutting are all fond memories from my childhood. For me wild harvesting is one of those activities that is a birthright of every child.
Apart from the huge excitement of finding delicious fruits and nuts apparently for free (though the effort of seeking and collecting is sometimes not even cost-effective), the child has a direct experience of that aspect of the human condition that is easy to forget, our dependence on nature.
For the botanical geneticist, and for the seed saver, there is another aspect to this: collecting wild varieties and propagating from them ensures a wider genepool. Breeding with these varieties can bring valuable characteristics to cultivated varieties. Plant breeders and scientists from the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute use this technique and so depend on collections of wild relatives and ‘landraces’, or primitive varieties, made from the centres of domestication of food plants.
Wild Harvesting in South Australia
We were able to put in some wild harvesting whilst in Adelaide in March to give seed saving presentations at the educators’ Learning in the Garden Conference and National Community Gardens Network Conference. Along the sides of roads and in wilderness areas we found delicious grapes, peaches, figs, blackberries, almonds, pine nuts, rose hips and olives (still nearly all green).
Olives were the most diverse. They differed widely in size, shape, earliness and productivity, not surprising considering their numbers in the Adelaide area and surrounding hills.
The diversity of almonds growing alongside the road in the Willunga area south of Adelaide was astounding: five varieties in the space of thirty metres: of the sweet almonds there were paper-shell, long table and medium soft-shelled; bitter almonds came in the usual hard-shell but also and unusually in a small paper-shell. Laertrile anyone? I remember my grandfather grew a hard-shell simply to pollinate his other dozen trees, though the taste of the small bitter nuts was addictive.
Wild seedling fruit and nut trees grow by chance and without help of any sort. A kind of natural selection. For the seed saver this is very interesting as the genetic dice has once more been thrown and the chance is there to have something really worthwhile, and therefore to replant it. Indeed all of the fruits and nuts we found were more tasty than bought ones.
There are many stories amongst the local rare fruit enthusiasts about propagating from this or that wild fruit tree, by both seed and cutting or scion. For example figs, grapes and pome and stone fruits are collected, multiplied and shared amongst the groups. We even heard of a few mango trees that bear in Adelaide! Obviously local adaptations.
Aside from the utilitarian aspects of wild varieties, there is also the pleasure of seeing so much variation in form and taste. Our commercially available fruit and nuts are often so bland and with little surprise factor. We are pesently eating a bitter almond, full of Laertrile, each every day. The tiny green wild olives that we harvested and pickled in brine are now ready to eat and they are exquisite in taste, not unlike the miniature Ligurian olives that can be purchased for a tidy sum in smart shops.