Wattle seed has been a mainstay in the diet of Indigenous Australians for thousands of years, but the native edible seed has become so popular in recent years that commercial growers can’t keep up with demand.
The seed, known for its nutritional value, is a rich source of protein and high in fibre.
Mark Lucas started growing wattle trees at his property in South Australia’s Riverland 23 years ago but said growing the trees to harvest the seeds came about as a bit of an accident.
“I was growing flowers for the Japanese flower market and I had a couple of rows of wattle seeds as windbreaks for the flowers,” he said.
“Then the Japanese economy fell over and they were no longer importing flowers because it was a luxury item.”
“So, I pulled out my flowers … and a friend of mine pointed out that it [wattle seed] is edible seed and it was in demand for the bushfood industry, so I thought, ‘I better keep them’ and have planted more ever since.”
Mr Lucas now has more than 2,000 wattle trees and he plans to expand his plantation even further.
Ancient bushfood with unique taste
Wattle seed is highly sought after by top chefs across the country but is also gaining popularity in the manufacturing sector.
Mr Lucas said it was known for its coffee, chocolate and hazelnut flavour and was a good substitute for vanilla.
“After we harvest it, we roast it and grind it like you would a coffee bean,” he said.
“Then that can be used … as a powder, but we take it a step further and extract the flavour out of it, so it ends up like a vanilla extract but it’s a wattle seed extract.”
Consulting chef and owner of Creative Native Foods Andrew Fielke said there were more than 70 edible species, but the most common species was the roasted dark brown Acacia victoriae.
“It is mainly used for biscuits, baking for breads, ice creams and pavlova,” Mr Fielke said.
“There is a massive interest now in Australian native foods … following through to the manufacturing sector, which is looking for new and interesting ways to value-add a unique and very nutritious flavour to products.
Mr Fielke said he tried about 15 species of different wattle seeds so far, and some of them did not have to be roasted.
“They have a beautiful rich oil content and are fabulous cooked as a whole seed used in risottos, pasta, bread and salads.
Suzanne Thompson, chairwoman of peak national body Australian Native Food and Botanicals (ANFAB), said the industry aimed to increase the involvement of Indigenous people in the production of wattle seed, create good partnerships and share the ancient knowledge.
Mr Fielke said he was interested in making connections with more Indigenous communities to create long-term benefits for families and children in those communities.
“It is their traditional food and I think we have to respect that and to work in a long-term relationship where we develop a resource, product and distribution together,” he said.
Native bushfoods: a drought-resilient, alternative industry
Ms Thompson said there was huge interest for Australian native foods not only on the national but also international market.
“International demand comes from the US, Europe and some Asian countries.”
She said growing native Australian bushfoods was a great opportunity for landholders throughout Australia, as bushfoods were drought-resilient plants.
“One of the things ANFAB is taking the lead on is in Indigenous engagement.”
Mr Lucas said this season’s growing conditions had been pretty good as there had been a lot of hot days.
“For wattle trees the hotter the better, they like a bit of stress, they seem to set seed heavier when they are under a bit of stress,” he said.