Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Kurrajong Tree from Down-Under

Widely introduced as an ornamental in the United States, the seeds make good food

Copyright 2016 --
 [This article will be used in an upcoming book being prepared by Nyerges.  Nyerges has been teaching ethno-botany since 1974, and is the author of 16 books, including “Foraging California,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America,” “Nuts and Berries of California,” and others.   Information on his classes and books is available at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

Where I grew up, our street was lined with stately and aromatic camphor trees, with their oval-shaped leaves that perfumed the air with camphor when you crushed them.  The fruits were little globose fleshy fruits about a quarter inch in diameter, with one seed inside. There was one tree, however, whose leaves looked like the camphor, but the fruit did not.  It had a  hard little pod that looked like a miniature wooden canoe. Inside the pod were about a dozen orange seeds.  I’d assumed it was a type of a camphor, or just one of those ornamentals from somewhere else with no practical uses at all.

I eventually learned that this tree is from Australia, where it is called  a kurrajong, and a bottle tree in the United States. The Latin name is Brachychiton populneus.

As far as I knew, this was one of those many inappropriately transplanted trees into Southern California from Australia, trees that were brought here as ornamentals or perhaps lumber, such as Eucalyptus, or Acacia.   Those have some good food and medicinal values, but I’d assumed that the Brachychiton was somewhat useless. It was just that odd tree with the hard canoe-shaped pod.

Biologists who track the movements of non-native plants point out that though the kurrajong is regarded as invasive to those parts of Australia where it was introduced by landscapers. It has also been planted far and wide as an ornamental, in South Africa, in the United States from Californian and Arizona down into the Southern states, and throughout the Mediterranean regions of the world. In fact, though certainly not as widespread as the eucalyptus trees, kurrajongs will grow wherever eucalyptus can grow.

Recently one of my students brought me some of the pods, asking me to identify it, and asking me if it had any value.  I confirmed that it was Brachychiton, and  just for the heck of it, I looked it up in a few of my books on the flora of Australia, and the bush foods of the native Aboriginal people.  I learned that the yellow seeds inside the pods were eaten by the Aboriginals, and that they were quite nutritious. According to a study by the University of Sydney, these seeds contain about 25% fat and about 18% protein.  The study also stated that 100 grams of the seed contains about 348 calories.  (Peanuts, by contrast, contain about 567 calories per 100 grams.)

My references were a bit scant about how exactly these were used, except that sometimes they were eaten raw, and sometimes roasted.

I did learn  -- the hard way – that you need to be careful when you clean each seed of the outer coating, which is covered in a very fine fuzz. When I first learned that these were edible, I picked a few of the dark yellow, fuzz-covered seeds out of the pod, and just rubbed them between my hands in order to remove the fuzzy chaff.  The fuzz is very fine and it’s not a serious irritant, but I did feel it, and afterwards,  I needed to wash my hands well.  The seed coating also imparted a yellowish pigment to my skin, which  washed off readily.

Several of us then tried the raw seeds. They’re hard at first, but they softened up in our mouths.  They become chewy, with a flavor reminiscent of corn.  Everyone was surprised that these odd fruits had a good-tasting seed.

I had been given a whole shopping bag of the seed pods, so my next task was to process the seed from these.  Originally, I was going to just pick out the seeds with my fingers, but I didn’t want that itchy fuzz all over my hands and arms and clothes. Instead, I used a butter knife and easily popped out the seeds from each pod.  They are stuck in the pods and are easily disattached with the knife.  I cleaned all the pods until I had a salad bowl of the seeds.  Next, I put all the seeds into a plastic salad colander.  To remove the coverings of each seed, you have to squeeze the seeds to crack the coating. It’s not hard, but you have to do it carefully to avoid the fuzz.  Wearing dish-washing gloves is the best way to do it, and you just crush all the seeds until the coverings are loose, and then you shake and colander and blow off the chaff.  When I was done, I had approximately one cup of the yellow seeds.

I stored the clean yellow seeds in a jar until I’d have a chance to cook them up, or grind them into flour during the next week.

In the meantime, I removed and washed all my clothes, and took a shower.  The fine fuzz isn’t like cactus spines, but there seem to be a lot of them, and I felt them everywhere, even though they are mostly not visible. 

I contacted my friend Daniel Sainty, who lives in Australian and who is a user of bushfood, and asked about the kurrajongs.  He knew all about this tree.

First, he told me that the use of its seeds as a coffee substitute has been well known in Australia.  They first require a light roasting,  following by a pounding or grinding and brief boiling; as you’d do with regular coffee.  I was eager to try this.

It turns out that there is a lot of history in the kurrajong.  Aborigines were known to  burn down the tree in the belief that this would drive water into the roots. They would then put one end of the roots into the coals of a fire, and the other end  into a container to catch water slowly dripping out.  This would be a good way to get water – if you’re in the Australian bush.

In fact, it turns out that two species of Brachychiton (B. rupestre  or bottle tree,  and B. populneum, kurrajong) are known to be good water trees, and probably other members of the genus also would have roots worth tapping.  There were reports that the Aborigines had subsisted in some areas almost wholly on water  from kurrajong roots.  One report on the kurrajong tree stated that “water gushes out rapidly when the pieces of root are set on end, the roots of a tree yielding gallons in quantity.”  Wow! 

Daniel also shared a reference to the fact that the young plants of the kurrajong  have a yam-like tuberous root, often considerably broader than the stem above, and this was a popular item of food with the Aborigines.  It is not clear whether or not they cooked or prepared it in any way before eating.

Daniel confirmed that the seeds were commonly eaten raw or roasted, or made into coffee, and that he enjoys the roasted seed.

So I took my cleaned seeds, bright yellow, and placed them in a cast iron skillet over the fire and roasted them.  I didn’t use oil, but just shook the skillet from time to time over an approximately 15 minute period.  I heard some seeds pop, but mostly they just faded from a bright yellow to a dull yellow bordering on brown.  I did this during an outdoor class I was conducting, and I let 8 students taste the roasted seeds. Everyone though the seeds had been  good raw, but they were very much improved when they were roasted, again tasting even more like corn.  At least two thought that the flavor of the seeds was more like sunflower seeds.

Next, I took the roasted seeds and ground them in a coffee grinder. This produced an obviously oily golden flour, that would cake up in some places.

I put two heaping teaspoons of the golden flour into my drip coffee filter and produced a somewhat opaque goldenish beverage.  The fragrance is somewhat like burnt corn, and the flavor is reminiscent of a grain beverage.  It produced a pleasant drink, not strongly flavored one way or the other.  I would not compare it to coffee, except that both are warm beverages.  Kurrajong drink has none of the bitterness of coffee, though I could detect a slight astringent undertaste.  The flavor is very much enhanced with a sweetener, like honey. I think that anyone you served this to would find it at least acceptable, and probably enjoyable.  I can see using this alone, or as a coffee extender, in much the same way that chicory is used.

I then took some of the ground up kurrajong seed flour, and mixed it half-and-half with some wheat flour.  I blended it well, and then cooked it like damper in a hot skillet.  The batter had that dark golden color of the seed, and it had  texture.  We cooked them well, and five of us tried them without honey or topping.  Everyone like them, even the children.  There was an initial burnt corn flavor, and just a very slight astringency in the mouth. As you chewed, it seemed almost oily, like eating peanut butter. I could see that some people might not care for the flavor, as it was distinctive, not bland like a wheat flour pancake. To me, the flavor was reminiscent of burnt corn, and was actually very tasty to my palate. 

We made a batch of several damper-pancakes, and we ate them all!  That says it all.  I believe that the flavor would be greatly enhanced with a jelly or butter topping.  I plan to experiment more with this food, and believe it can still be a very important modern-day bush food.

Personal contact: Daniel Sainty, Australia
“Bush Foods: Aboriginal Food and Herbal Medicine” by Jennifer Isaacs. Lansdowne Publishing, 1987.
“Wild Food Plants of Australia” by Tim Low, Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1988.

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