Strawberries in the Desert

Story telling from Australia

That old chestnut

No wonder they looked like chestnuts. They are chestnuts.

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The tree at the front of our house is a Moreton Bay Chestnut, a Blackbean (Castanospermum australe). It’s an evergreen Australian native.

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When I discovered that, my fear and loathing (which let’s face it was perfectly rational given the size and weight of the seed pods that regularly slam onto the front path) turned to joy and delight. Chestnuts! Never mind that visitors to the house risks being flattened by the equivalent of hobnail boots being flung at them, a chestnut tree means free food!

I gathered all the seedpods that had fallen since the last clear up and salivated at the thought of sweet chestnuts roasted over an open fire (not that we have an open fire). I remembered the roast chestnut soup I used to make after autumn walks in the woods in England and I googled a recipe for roast chestnut stuffing with apples and cranberries (not that I have anything to stuff.)

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Let me digress for a moment and tell you about the time I was researching a feature for Australian House & Garden magazine on timber furniture. I wanted to find out more about eucalyptus trees so I googled blackbutt – which as most Australians know is a common native hardwood tree – only I thought the word had a space in the middle. Please don’t try it. A warning flashed across the screen and I was immediately reported to the HR department for “inappropriate use of company internet facilities.”

A similar thing happened when I belatedly thought to google, Can you eat chestnuts from a Moreton Bay chestnut tree? The answer was a resounding no, the warning so severe I half expected the computer screen to flash red and shout STOP! The seeds are toxic. “If eaten with out preparation, these seeds can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and dizziness,” said funtrivia.com

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The Queensland Museum concurred (no offense, funtrivia, but sometimes the internet can give you a bum steer) and so did Terry Rankmore, who established a bush tucker garden at Lake Illawarra High School and who wrote Murni Dhungang, a fascinating book about aboriginal bush tucker. His advice was stark. “Moreton Bay chestnuts can be deadly,” he wrote. They contain cyanide.

And yet, for twenty thousand years or more, Aboriginal people ate them. Queensland Museum explained that Aboriginal people would crack the seeds and soak them in water then they would grind the seeds into meal, use the meal to make cakes and, finally, roast the cakes. No short-cuts there then.

But why go to such lengths? If a food is poisonous surely it’s better avoided? I kept reading Terry’s book and was floored by what I discovered. Moreton Bay chestnuts, when properly prepared, were used to reduce cancerous tumors in people. The Australian National Herbarium agreed. “The beans contain alkaloids, which have some resistance to cancers as well as HIV AIDS,” their website stated.

I stand in awe of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who lived so successfully on this land for many thousands of years, and who somehow learned to survive, with extraordinary ingenuity and respect for the land, by using only what nature provides.

 

8 comments on “That old chestnut

  1. Samantha Gowing
    June 6, 2014

    Love it! Great story and the title is my favourite reference to some thing from ‘back in the day’!

    Like

    • debhuntinbrokenhill
      June 6, 2014

      Thanks Samantha, sounds like we’re both old enough to remember ‘back in the day!’…

      Like

  2. monsoonwendy
    June 6, 2014

    This is fascinating Deb! I knew there were several things they ate like that. You wonder what on earth got people to knowing what preparation would help?! Amazing. Could you make the pods into jewellery……

    Like

  3. debhuntinbrokenhill
    June 6, 2014

    Ha ha, I thought of you when I was collecting them!! x

    Like

  4. bkpyett
    June 6, 2014

    Great post Deb. I must say you deserve to make use of them with your research. It is amazing how the Aborigines discovered how to use them safely.

    Like

    • debhuntinbrokenhill
      June 8, 2014

      Thx Barbara, I’d love to make a collage with the seed pods, not sure what I would do with it or where I would put it but can’t help feeling I’d like to try…once I’ve finished the weeding!

      Like

  5. Carricklass
    June 6, 2014

    Love it. The ingenuity of the Aborigninal people is wonderfully illustrated here. Such an interesting piece of research. So, you’re back to the pods just being missiles! Or indeed the ingredient to a murder mystery!

    Like

    • debhuntinbrokenhill
      June 8, 2014

      A murder mystery involving seed pods – I sense a perfect crime in the planning! Thanks Carricklass!

      Like

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I'm a writer based in Australia with a passion for gardening, remote places and people with a story to tell.

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