Bunya: Prehistoric Plant, Ancient Australian Food Tradition

Felling Bunya pine, Bunya Mountains, ca 1910
Felling Bunya pine, Bunya Mountains, ca 1910

For 100 million years, a towering Australian rainforest tree has fed dinosaurs and their successors, the mammals. Its once wide range has been greatly reduced by our drying climate so today the Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii

) is restricted to Queensland, home of the oldest rainforests on Earth.

When the Bunya first evolved, there was no Amazon Rainforest. This tree has fed and protected Australians since humans first migrated to our shores. For at least 176 times as long as Europeans have been living on this continent, those first Australians managed to sustainably live alongside the Bunya and its forest, a lesson in permaculture for us all to learn.

The Bunya is a familiar park tree, an evergreen, subtropical conifer with a unique, easily recognised silhouette. In the wild, trees sometimes exceed 50 metres high and live for 300 to 500 years. The first Bunya to be collected by a scientist was described by John Carne Bidwill (1815-1853), a colonial botanist, when he found them growing in the Bunya Mountains in 1843.

Bidwill was an English-born Australian botanist who briefly became the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. The tree was named by William Jackson Hooker after Bidwill personally delivered a live specimen to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK). 

Endemic to south eastern Queensland, with two, small, outlying populations with non-spiny leaves living in highland refugia in far northern Queensland.

Then, as now, Bunyas stood like sentinels along the Brisbane River. Known from the fossil record to have existed 100 million years ago at a time when the planet was hot enough for forest to grow across Antarctica and ocean levels were 200 metres higher than today. Australia was still joined with Antartica. At that time, the Bunya was much more widely spread, as was its close relative, Araucaria mirabilis (long since extinct) making this tree a contemporary of dinosaurs like Stegosaurus.

And goodness, what a fierce food prickly bunya leaves make! Like cycads, there’s only a brief window for browsing dinosaurs, a few days starting when the new leaves emerge and before their prickles harden. The nuts are a much easier and more nutritious feast, but what eats them today? It’s believed that the animals which would once have dispersed Bunya nuts are now extinct. Now, the odd possum might shift a few seed away from under the shade of mother trees for a feed, and bush rats perform a similar service, but field research shows neither are particularly efficient seed vectors, and gravity and topography can only help roll those cones a short distance from mother trees. The heavy cones also fall apart with the impact of falling, so much of the time they don’t even roll. Something is missing.

Trees are monoecious (which means each carries male and female cones), wind pollinated, and are slow to start cropping. Bunyas crop better when grown in groups – they are moderately gregarious. While solitary trees will crop, they do so lightly, because they can recognise their own pollen and are programmed to exchange genes with other individual trees. Bunyas don’t want to be inbred.

Once a fairly common emergent tree in pockets of rainforest scattered along eastern Queensland, most of the largest specimens have been felled for timber. The softwood is used for indoor purposes because while it endures and is versatile, it needs protection from outdoor weathering, especially from saprophytic fungi.

Settlers documented various indigenous names for the Bunya, such as banza-tunza, banua-tunya, boonya, bunyi, bahnua, bon-yi, banya bunya, bunnia, bunya-bunya, and bonyi-bonyi.

 Female Bunya cones can reach the size of a football, weigh 5 or so kilos, and contain 60 – 80 nuts.

The Queensland Museum says:

“These flavoursome and nutritious nuts, rich in oils and carbohydrates, could be eaten raw or roasted and ground into flour.

The nuts were harvested by climbing the trees using a strong vine* that was looped around the tree and the climber’s waist. Cones could also be found on the ground after having broken off and fallen from the very top of the tree.

Once every three years between December and March a bumper harvest of nuts is produced. It was during this time that the Bunya Gatherings occurred, with invited Aboriginal groups travelling from all over Southeast Queensland.

At these gatherings groups conducted business:

* Items, food, information and new knowledge were traded and shared;
* Cultural, social and kinship obligations were observed and arranged;
* Disputes and complaints were resolved;
* Ceremonies were conducted and future events organised; and
* Songs, stories and dances were swapped between groups to be taken home to their own people.

Trade routes existed across Australia [and] through this trading and exchange of information, songs, stories and material culture as groups attended other events with different groups and continued the cycle.

The last Bunya Gathering was believed to have been held in 1902 – the displacement of Aboriginal populations caused by the introduction of government settlements put a stop to the event.

Although the Bunya Gathering has ceased, Aboriginal people continue the cycles of trade today in various other ways”.

 Climbing steps were also cut by stone axes into Bunya trunks

Bunya Gatherings attracted up to 700 people. One camp area was on Obi Obi Creek (a name derived from Ubie Ubie, a famous indigenous warrior) between present day Maleny, Montville and Flaxton. That camp was used by the Nalbo, Dallambarra, Dungidau and Garumnga groups of the Wapa tribe and they gathered nuts around Baroon Pocket (some of this land was flooded by Baroon Pocket Dam in 1989). The Quandamooka people, of North Stradbroke Island, were another group that travelled to the Blackall Ranges to participate in Bunya Gatherings.

The extended foraging resulting from Bunya Gatherings depleted the local forest of other foods. 

In return for attending a Gathering, other groups offered reciprocal rights, inviting the custodians of the Bunya to visit their land to hunt and gather food during the recovery period. (A similar tradition – the Toka – still occurs on Tanna Island, Vanuatu).

Thomas Petrie (1831-1910) was a grazier, explorer and a friend of indigenous Australians. Petrie learned to speak Turrbal, the local language, and attended his first of many Bunya Gatherings when he was 14 years old. Petrie accompanied them on the long walk.

So significant was the association between indigenous Australians and the Bunya, that in 1842 the New South Wales Governor Sir George Gipp, made the The Bunya Proclamation. This enlightened act recognised this ancient association between the first Australians and one of the world’s most ancient food trees. Gipp ordered the whole area be put aside as a reserve for indigenous use.

Tragically, seventeen years later when the state of Queensland was declared, the new state government rescinded the Bunya Proclamation in 1859, opening the whole area to exploitation by settlers. Red Cedar, Bunya and Queensland Kauri Pine were amongst the first ancient forest giants to be felled for timber and their rainforest habitat cleared for farming. Indigenous Australians were progressively driven from their traditional lands into missions to break this cultural link.

When Bunyas died their fibrous outer bark was used for kindling. Bunya wounds ooze a resin, used as one of the first glues. Bunya nuts are roasted or boiled and were also ground by stones to make gluten-free flour. Indigenous Australians buried a portion of the nut crop in permanently damp places, encouraging them to germinate. An unusual feature of Bunya germination is not that the seed can take up to a couple of years to germinate, many gardeners know this, but that before a shoot emerges the seed develops a thick, carrot-like tap root. This tuberous tap root was also eaten and is said to be more nutritious than dormant seed. Today we know that vegetable sprouts and microgreens are far more nutritious (up to the point when they develop their second pair of true leaves) that at any other stage of their life. Indigenous Australians were into ‘super-foods’ thousands of years ago. There are reports that eating fermented Bunya roots gave people an offensive odour, likened to the effect of garlic, yet fermented Bunya was much prized and regarded as a gourmet food. Why? When the tap roots are fermented, it is believed to further increase their nutritional value to humans because they become easier to digest.

Ormiston House, one of Queensland’s most significant colonial properties (it was established before the State of Queensland was declared), has a large avenue of Bunya pines, the second oldest planted in Queensland. The first and oldest was planted by Walter Hill, the first curator of the original city botanic garden in Brisbane. Bunyas line Ormiston’s entrance carriageway and were planted under the instructions of its owner, Captain Louis Hope, a pioneer of Australia’s sugarcane industry, a garden lover and active acclimatiser of timber trees and crop plants.

Ormiston is now owned by a Carmelite order of nuns, and they continue to honour the Bunya Gathering. The Ormiston Bunyas reliably crop every summer, and the ground underneath them is roped off from visitors and volunteers to prevent injury from falling nuts. Every year, Ormiston delivers trailer loads of Bunya cones to the Quandamooka people of North Stradbroke Island, honouring their ancient association with this tree.

Around 1,000 hectares of plantation Bunya exist today (not much considering it is almost as valuable and as versatile as macadamia) and growers in the Wide Bay and Sunshine Coast region cultivate them for timber and nuts. Bunya timber is now used for cabinet making and for making guitar soundboards.

Barung Landcare have recently established The Bunya Dreaming Festival at Belli Park, it occurs on one day each January. The Dreaming generates an understanding of indigenous culture, encouraging networking and information sharing, strengthening of community partnerships.

I sincerely hope this food plant-human cultural association thrives, because many local councils have ceased planting Bunyas. Wowsers! When I managed the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, where the first bunyas planted in NSW still thrive, we simply roped off the areas and installed hazard signs. Three million visitors a year and, so far, no one has been bashed by Bunyas! As one elderly Queensland gardener told me, “Young Australians need to be educated about what a Bunya tree looks like, what the sound of snapping cones and breaking branches sound like, and to avoid lingering underneath them in high summer. When I was at primary school, we had a Bunya in the schoolyard. We knew what to do, how to harvest them, and no one was ever hurt.” 

Grow more Bunyas

Bunya pines have mast years, a phenomenon when the nuts (mast) produced by trees in a given year is exponentially higher than the average. (By extension, a mast year can also be one in which wild and farm crops are significantly abundant).

Bunyas are best suited to a warm temperate to subtropical climate, but can succeed in Hobart, Christchurch (NZ), Lisbon and Dublin. Established seedlings, planted on ridges at Mt Annan Botanic Garden (NSW) withstood regular winter frosts of -3 to -5C.

In brief:

* Tall, evergreen forest conifer, to 50m. Average lifespan (in the wild) 300 – 500 years;
* Suited to a warm temperate to subtropical climate, but can succeed in eastern Tasmania, the north island of New Zealand, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland;
* Seeds take from six months to two years to germinate. Sow individually in giant tubes (forest tubes);
* Provide full, all day sunshine or a minimum of 8 hours daily sunshine;
* Requires a deep, freely draining soil as Bunyas are intolerant of wet, cold soil. Dig soil thoroughly before planting. If you haven’t got soil a metre deep, don’t plant a Bunya! Allow 20m between each tree, this reduces branch damage during storms;
* Mulch and water seedlings at planting and water deeply once a week during dry weather for the first 2-3 years after planting;
* Protect seedlings from frost for the first 3-4 years after planting, after which they can cope with frost to -5C;
* Cropping starts at 15 years of age. Yields are higher where Bunyas, which are wind pollinated, are planted in groups.

Cooking Bunya nuts

Fresh bunya nuts are said to improve in flavour if they are prevented from drying out and stored in a fridge for a week or more. Bunya nuts also store without deterioration for two years when deep frozen. Ground, roasted bunya nuts are used to make hummus, biscuits and bread.


Before cooking, Bunya nut shells must be pierced, otherwise they can explode. Very messy – you don’t want a visit from the bomb squad! Some use a hammer, hitting the nuts along the seam, others stab a hole through them using a knife. I use secateurs to snip the pointed end twice, creating four small flaps. I use these to peel the nut casing off after they’ve cooled.

Bunya nuts can be boiled for 30 minutes, or roasted in an oven at 200C for 30 minutes. Traditionally, Bunya nuts would be roasted on hot stones on camp fires. The flavour is reminiscent of roast Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) and tastes better when slightly salted.

Bunya Pesto

* ¾ cup cooked Bunya nuts;
* 2 cups of your favourite kind of basil (or coriander) leaves;
* 3 cloves of garlic (or equivalent using garlic chives);
* 1 chilli;
* Juice of 1 lime;
* 1/4 to 1/2 cup of olive oil
* Salt to taste

Put the ingredients into a blender and create a smooth paste. You can also add sour cream before stirring into cooked pasta, and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

14th February 2015


One Comment Add yours

  1. Fay Helwig says:

    I enjoyed reading this article as my family moved to live in the foothills on the western side of the Bunya Mts. in 1944. There were relics of 2 former saw mills on our land where the Myall Creek began. I rode a horse 6 miles to the Yamsion school, a location where the Aboriginal people dug yams. We preferred to eat Bunya nuts boiled in the water previously used to cook corned beef. They were split while hot, the yellow shoot removed, and spread with butter. My parents built a new house on ‘Blacks camp hill’. The people trekked into the mountains each day during the harvest season, but they would not sleep there.

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