A guide to bush tucker

Scott Heiman — 5 January 2015

Traditionally, fruits, vegetables, minerals and animals were gathered and hunted in various ways by different people across the planet. It’s the indigenous people from many continents that we need to thank for the foods we now commonly eat.

In the past few decades, it’s become trendy to “rediscover” and experiment with nature’s storeroom. But even in the modern age, we can readily place ourselves at risk if we don’t know what we’re doing.

Here in Australia, over many thousands of years, Aboriginal people have perfected the skill of obtaining and preparing natural materials as edible foods. While some foods are eaten on the spot or are easily prepared, there are many distinct processes involved in selecting and preparing others in order to render them safe.


While a lot of traditional knowledge still exists within the Australian population, both Aboriginal and otherwise, many of the rest of us would be hard pressed to distinguish one nut, wild fruit or grass from another. So if we experiment with bush tucker — whether voluntarily or in an emergency situation — we should keep two facts at the forefront of our minds:

1) about 1000 species of plants in Australia are known to be toxic; and

2) you can derive cyanide from about 10 per cent of these.

So, if you find yourself contemplating eating bush foods that you are not absolutely certain about, it’s highly recommended that you apply a systematic protocol to testing whether that wild food is actually edible or not. Actively apply all of your senses and your judgment to the task of discovering whether something is, or is not, likely to be safe to eat. For example:

  • If it smells of almonds or peaches, leave it alone. This smell is indicative of cyanide.
  • Just because birds and other animals are eating something, doesn’t mean you can.
  • Bright colours on frogs and grubs are a natural warning.
  • White or milky sap equals poison.
  • Leave mushrooms alone unless you know what you are doing.
  • It’s the same with legumes. If you’re not certain, it’s best to leave them alone.
  • Avoid trumpet and pea-shaped flowers, fruits with red seeds or five segments, and avoid hand-shaped leaves and prickly seed pods.

For leaves and fruits, follow this simple testing procedure:

Crush it in one hand. If it smells of almonds or peaches, leave it alone.

Otherwise, rub it on your inner elbow or underarm, wait for five minutes for a reaction like itching or burning. If no reaction occurs, then rub a little on the corner of your mouth then wait for five minutes. If nothing happens, rub it on your tongue and again wait five minutes. Stop if any reaction occurs.

If there is no reaction, chew it a little and spit it out, to see if it’s bitter, or if a reaction occurs (soreness, burning, irritation) and wait five minutes.

Take a teaspoon-sized portion, chew and swallow. Wait for at least four hours to see if you get cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting or constant burping. If there are no ill-effects, consume five times the amount and wait a further four hours. Provided there are still no contrary signs, eat a few pieces of the food every couple of hours for a snack, slowly building up the amount.

If a rash or an itching/burning sensation occurs at any time during this process, STOP!

This protocol takes no less than eight-and-a-half hours to complete and is vital to maximising the probability that what you are eating is safe. And you must not eat anything else while testing a food source to be sure of the results.

Remember that changing your diet is going to affect your digestive system. Consequently, any rapid alteration in what you consume is likely to cause diarrhoea which, in a survival situation, can be a real problem because it will result in the loss of precious water and will weaken you.


Having said all this, I don’t mean to be an alarmist. Not all bush foods are dangerous and, indeed, many have become such a mainstream part of the Australian diet that we’ve probably forgotten their origins. These include:

Honey: There are many types of native bees in Australia. A careful eye and some tracking skills will enable you to follow them back to their nests. Just be careful not to stumble across European bees, as they sting.

Nectar: Nectar-bearing flowers like bottlebrush, grevillea, banksia, hakea and the grass tree can be sucked for their sweet nectar and taste. Or immerse the flowers in water for a sweet tasting drink.

Crustaceans: The freshwater yabby is found in inland lagoons, billabongs, waterways and dams. Yabbies make the best eating.

Edible insects: While not a common food in modern Australia, in many parts of the world larvae are routinely eaten as a high protein source. The witchetty grub is one of our best known. And let’s not forget the earthworm, grasshopper and bogong moth.

If you plan to take an experimental approach to food, make sure you’re armed with a few good books that include lots of detailed pictures, and attend seminars by your local indigenous rangers at a national parks gathering or at an outdoor show.

As always, education and guidance should be the first step taken in discovery. If you apply the guidelines here, and to that add a good sprinkling of common sense, the world will be your oyster.

Check out the full feature in issue #82 November 2014 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.


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