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Eating and Drinking the Garden

Colleen Keena


After agreeing that my husband and I would prepare a bushfood tasting for our local catchment group for World Environment Day in June 2002, panic set in as the numbers edged up to 100.

Eating and drinking the garden at the beginning of winter

Bullet  Drinks

The drink was easy as lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) is our standard cool drink in hot weather and also the drink we have if we want a hot drink at night. Quick, tasty, cheap and no calories - just four lemon myrtle leaves and water are needed to make two litres of refreshing drink. So, drinks were soon organised, cold for the children and a leaf of lemon myrtle in hot water for the adults supervising them.

As we regularly drink lemon myrtle, we always ensure that we have plenty of leaves available. When we were planning our move to our new house in mid-2000, we bought a large plant (1m tall) of lemon myrtle as if we could only grow one edible species it would be this plant. The pot plant has been just outside the back door, where it is only a few steps for a quick drink, either hot or cold. The plant is protected from frosts, hail etc. This large plant was not cheap but it has kept us in drinks for two years and so has more than repaid what we spent.

The young leaves of Backhousia citriodora are the best for making drinks.

  Backhousia citriodora Tetragonia tetragonioides
  Backhousia citriodora (left)
Tetragonia tetragonioides (right)

Click for larger image

The recipe for the lemon myrtle drink is shown in the accompanying table. For further information on lemon myrtle as a bushfood see the Bush Tucker Plants website.

Bullet  Savoury Food

Given it was early winter when the food was being prepared, and frosts were beginning to damage plants, something to accompany the drink was a little harder. We had made a native spinach dip and a native spinach pie when only a few friends were visiting and sampling bushfoods, but we had difficulty with thinking of something that could be stretched amongst 100.

We finally thought of native spinach and cheese bread. We normally use multi-grain flour but found the flavour of the cheese and spinach was overshadowed and so we had to go and buy some white bread mix for the breadmaker. Only one trial was needed to come up with bread that we thought was tasty and attractive. The bread was such a success that children were asking where they could buy it and adults were saying that while they enjoyed everything, the bread was the standout favourite. While there are a number of native 'spinach' plants, we find that Warrigal greens or Tetragonia tetragonoides is the second 'must-have' plant for us.

The young leaves are best when picking Tetragonia tetragonioides. Individual leaves can be picked or long branches cut and the leaves removed as needed. A colander full of leaves provides enough leaves, after cooking, for two loaves of 'Native Spinach and Cheese Bread'.

Tetragonia tetragonioides takes heat, it takes drought, it has survived frosts that have burnt off all the surrounding plants such as sandpaper figs (Ficus opposita) and native hibiscus (Hibiscus splendens, H.divaricatus and H.heterophyllus). It makes a wonderful groundcover underneath trees or in the open. When it dies off, some time later seedlings emerge to cover the ground all over again. No weed has a hope of growing in our garden amongst a patch of native spinach. There is just one drawback - the leaves MUST be blanched before use as the leaves have a high oxalate concentration. We drop them in a saucepan of boiling water, let them simmer for 5 minutes and then discard the cooking water by draining into a colander and rinsing with cold water while leaves are still in the colander.

  Tetragonia tetragonioides
  Tetragonia tetragonioides used as a ground cover in our vegetable garden. For further information on Warrigal greens as a bushfood see the Bush Tucker Plants website.
Photo: Geoff Keena

We use native spinach in a number of ways such as savoury tarts, layered casseroles, omelettes but our favourite has become the white bread with about 100 grams of cooked spinach and 1-2 cups of tasty grated cheese. The blanched greens and cheese are added to the bread half way through the mixing process so they don't become pulverised. We pick a full colander of leaves and when this is blanched there is usually enough for two loaves of bread. We serve the bread with butter.

Bullet  Dessert

We have been making a preserve or jam from the petals of our third must-have plant, native hibiscus, for many years. So following the tasting of the bread, we decided to serve the jam on "mini toasts", available from our local supermarket. At home we usually eat the jam on raisin toast. The recipe for the preserve is included in the accompanying table. The recipe (and others) can also be seen at the Australian Native Hibiscus website.

However, previously we had only used the petals of Hibiscus heterophyllus to make jam. Being autumn, this plant wasn't in flower so we had to make some experimental batches of jams from other native hibiscus plants, mainly crosses, that were in flower at the time. We found three hibiscus plants which made tasty jam. Each of these plants had resulted from a cross with H.heterophyllus.

  Hibiscus 'Wirruna'
  One bloom that made tasty jam was Hibisucs 'Wirruna', developed by Lyn Craven
Photo: Geoff Keena

Hibiscus 'Ian's Cream;
  One of the crosses which was in flower when jam was needed. This bloom has since been named Hibiscus 'Ian's Cream' in memory of Ian Waldron
Photo: Geoff Keena

One of these hybrids had apricot-pink flowers (Hibiscus 'Wirruna'), another had cream flowers (Hibiscus 'Ian's Cream') while a third had lemon flowers - but each produced jam with the rich red colour and the rhubarb-berry flavour characteristic of the jam we were used to making from the petals of Hibiscus heterophyllus.

As we didn't think mini toasts would be sufficient to round out the tasting, we drew on previous experience of feeding a large number of people. We had found that a sauce or syrup such as chocolate, served over a scoop of ice-cream was easy to prepare, easy to serve and was always very popular. Our choice of ice-cream was confirmed as a popular choice as even although the day of the tasting turned out to be cold and wet, no-one decided that it was too cold for a scoop of ice-cream with syrup.

We like syrups as they can keep up to a year and even plants with short cropping seasons can be included on the menu from one crop until the next. The question was, given that our usual sources of syrup such as Davidson's plums (Davidsonia sp.) or lillypillies (Syzygium sp.) or finger limes (Citrus australasica) had all finished fruiting before we had been asked about the bushfood tasting, what did we have in our two year old garden's selection of bushfoods that would serve 100?

Had we had more mature plants, we would have had a more extensive range of syrups available but all plants were young and so far had only produced small crops. We had made syrup from the recent first small crop of finger lime but had already used up what we had. Given there were no plants bearing fruit, we finally thought of a simple solution: syrup made from the leaves of lemon myrtle. However, the large pot plant that had kept us in hot and cold drinks for two years would not provide enough leaves for trialling lemon myrtle syrup.

We had previously planted three lemon myrtles at our old house and thought this was a good number of plants for a constant supply of drinks. After clearing the new garden of a large number of environmental weed trees, we were extremely pleased to discover there were actually three 2m high lemon myrtle plants already growing in our new garden. The lemon myrtle trees were large enough to give us plenty of leaves for experimenting.

After several ghastly concoctions, we finally ended up with a delicious syrup (the recipe is included in the accompanying table). The answer turned out to be to pour boiling water over the leaves, let the mixture sit for some time until it was the colour of weak tea, then remove the leaves and boil the resulting liquid with sugar. Fortunately for us, in spite of a number of second helpings, there was a small quantity of the syrup left over after the bushfood tasting. This has kept well in the fridge and we have been enjoying it with custard or fruit or ice-cream.


Our philosophy is that if a plant can be multi-functional, why take up precious garden space with a plant that provides a limited return. Our plants are chosen for many different reasons. We use a deciduous native tree, Melia azedarach, to modify the temperature of the house by reducing the heat on the north side of the house in summer yet still allowing full sun into the house for winter warmth. We plant a wide range of species to attract wildlife including birds, butterflies, frogs and lizards and the large number of creatures that visit our garden are a constant source of delight. We enjoy flowers, both in the garden and when brought inside but we also grow plants grown to stimulate other senses: the sight and sound of trees such as casuarinas that glisten with raindrops and swish in the wind; the feel of the rough texture of the leaves on the sandpaper figs (Ficus opposita); the papery bark of the melaleucas; the furrowed bark on local species of gums; the perfume from the aromatic foliage of plants such as the lemon myrtle.

However, when we can go out to the garden and collect plants which we can eat or drink, we have an enhanced appreciation of the versatility of Australian plants. Growing Warrigal greens as a groundcover and lemon myrtle either in a pot or in the ground, can provide much more than a once only bushfood sampling. Many of the adults who tried these flavours enjoyed them so much that they were planning on adding these plants to their own gardens so they too could eat and drink their garden.

DISCLAIMER: It must be noted that it could be dangerous to eat any plant that is not accurately identified. Even after an accurate identification, particular treatment is needed for some species, e.g. the Warrigal greens must be blanched before use and the water discarded. Even then, I would only have very small quantities until I was sure that I was not going to have a negative reaction. Although these plants may be safely edible for most people, there can be no guarantee that a particular individual may not have an adverse reaction to a particular plant.

Further information on some of the species described in this article can be found on the ASGAP website:


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Australian Plants online - June 2003
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants