Tropical Crops For Summer In Northern Australia

Torch ginger, Etlingera speciosa, has edible bracts.

I’ve been surprised to get messages from gardeners in far northern Queensland saying “we can’t grow many crops in summer,” and “summer isn’t a good time for leafy crops,” and “the best season for growing food here is winter.” Why so? The tropics are incredibly productive all year round and their abundant produce is in such demand.

Possibly they are new to Queensland’s tropics and perhaps they are new to gardening – the Covid pandemic has seen many begin to garden for the first time.

I’ve never had less than 70 crops on my menu from my 300 square metre food garden, even during a hosepipe ban in the depths of the Millennium Drought. That took a little effort.

We all dream of crops we’d like to eat fresh from the garden but cannot due to our climatic limitations. Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot more we can grow within our respective climate zones, if we make an effort.

In warm temperate Sydney, I dreamt of having more than one crop of bananas a year. Now in subtropical Brisbane, I’d love to put garden fresh coconut milk in my curries and desserts (like aloe vera). Who wouldn’t enjoy taste testing cocoa berries fresh from the tree, or to explore cooking with breadfruit?

Let’s look at what a tropical gardener could be planning to grow this summer.
Food diversity

Seed Savers Manual/ Handbook
The Seed Savers Handbook covers more than one hundred crops that can be grown in far northern Queensland.

In 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated there to be a minimum of 10,000 edible plants on Earth, but just twenty make up the bulk of farmed food. This is such an important point, I included it in interpretive signage in the Rare and Threatened Plants Garden which I designed for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, when it opened in October 1998.

A century earlier in 1889, Joseph Maiden, a former Director of Sydney Gardens, wrote the book ‘The Useful Native Plants of Australia’. Reprinted in 1975 by Compendium Books, this source book covers many edible and medicinal plants – bush tucker or bush foods – used by First Australians. Many have since fallen from use.

‘Cornucopia II, a source book of edible plants‘ by Stephen Facciola, Kampong Publications, 1998, isn’t any more of a gardening book than the former work, but it’s a modern, global version with hundreds of suitable candidates for a tropical garden.

My two top picks for a home gardener are:

‘Tropical Food Gardens,’ by Leone Norrington, Bloomings Books, 2003, and

‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook,’ by Michel and Jude Fanton, just re-edited this year.

Both are invaluable gardening guides.

Queensland agricultural pastoral handbook 1940
Food culture has changed since the ‘Queensland Agricultural and Pastoral Handbook was written in 1940.

Look at how far Queensland horticulture has changed in the past eighty years. Here is a list illustrating what Queensland growers were advised to grow during World War Two:

Artichoke, asparagus, broad bean, French bean, Lima bean, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, celery, choko, chilli, cucumber, spring onion, garlic, mint, parsley, thyme, marjoram, basil (sweet only), sage, lavender, kohl Rabi, leek, lettuce, watermelon, rock melon, cantaloupe, parsnip, pea, pumpkin, marrow, squash, radish, rhubarb, spinach and tomato.

‘The Queensland Agricultural and Pastoral Handbook’, Volume 2, Part 3: Horticulture, by H. Barnes, Published by the Queensland Government Printer, 1940.

Thirty six crops, and many of which are suited to the cool seasons, not a tropical summer. A curiously English solution that won’t really help a tropical gardener. If this is your source book, it wouldn’t be surprising some believed the tropical summer to be a difficult – or impossible – period to grow these crops.

Forgetting is a form of uninvention

Forgetting article/ The Organic Gardener magazine/ 2005 - 1
Forgetting is a form of uninvention. The Organic Gardener magazine, Australia, 2005.

Forgetting what traditional food plants are means forgetting how to grow and prepare them. Losing traditional food culture is a form of uninvention that motivated the Seed Saver’s Network to be founded by Jude and Michel Fanton in NSW in 1986.

One of the Network’s objectives is to prevent de-evolution. I gave a paper called ‘The Victory Garden’ for the Australian Institute of Horticulture National conference, Homebush (2001) with a section analysing how we choose to forget culture.

I expanded on forgetting when I was the horticultural editor of The Organic Gardener magazine, and it has been a recurring issue in my ongoing role as a Director of the Seed Savers’ Network.

Traditional food goes right back to the origins of farming and gardening. Science has confirmed bananas were developed in New Guinea. First Australians cultivated bananas long ago. I posted the news that archaeologists have located three thousand year old banana gardens in the Torres Strait on Facebook earlier this year.

Do you grow bananas? They provide sweet ripe fruit, starchy green fruit, flowers for salads, stems for steaming food or as fodder, and leaves for plates, wrapping and cooking. Very handy, and that’s just one crop likely to be growing in every street in northern Queensland.

Vanuatu/ Pacific islander indentured labour QLD - 1
Forced Pacific island labourers worked Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. In the process, they created a demand for traditional foods, like cocoyam, to be grown to feed them.

I’ve been growing cocoyams since 1994, and I’ve shown how to cultivate them on television. Along with breadfruit and cassava, this and several other traditional crops were introduced into Australia so that forced labour brought in to work Queensland’s sugarcane plantations had some familiar foods. The last commercial cocoyam farms, one near Tully, the other is Rochedale South (Brisbane) have ceased growing them.

Forty years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Programme acknowledged cocoyam to be a globally significant and underexploited food. It uses less water than conventional taro and giant taro. I harvest tropical ‘spinach’ from its leaves and the stems and cormlets are my tropical ‘potatoes’. Next year, I’m selling my surplus to an organic farmer who wants to resurrect this as a commercial crop.

Everyone knows turmeric. But how many grow native turmeric? Other ‘forgotten’ traditional foods I’ve shown on television include ming aralia, Polyscias fruticosa. Queenslanders are most familiar with this as a decorative pot plant, but I’ve eaten it cooked on TV (in a typical PNG feast). I grow a selection of cultivars at home.

One way to decide how to plant a tropical food garden is to buy a tropical cook book, list your favourite plants and recipes and plant them. ‘Kaikai Aniani, a guide to bush foods, markets and culinary arts of Papua New Guinea’, by R. J. May, and published by R. Brown & Associates, Bathurst, NSW (1984) may be the best way to start your tropical kitchen  garden.

Jerry/ Elephant Foot yam, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius - 6
A wigwam supports yam, while underneath grow elephant foot yam. In the RHS grow cocoyam.

There’s evidence elephant foot yam has been cultivated in northern Australia for 10,000 years. Other true yams are grown as highly productive crops. I’ve produced over 135 kg of winged yam tubers from a 10 sq metre bed. One year I demonstrated on television how you could grow one plant in 0.5 sq m of soil and produce 17 kg of tubers. I’ve seen them being sold at Rusty’s Markets, Cairns.

Gac, aka teasel gourd, is an important summer crop indigenous to Australia through to SE Asia. So rich in lycopene, it’s being pushed by the ‘wellness’ industry as a ‘superfood’. A group of growers is researching its commercial production in Australia and we have been in contact. I grow gac at home, but it much prefers a wet tropical summer to my subtropical garden.

It’s an exciting time to garden

Everyone knows turmeric. But how many Queenslanders grow native turmeric?

The internet transcends geography. The books listed above can be ordered on line and paid for by EFT. So too can many plants and seed. Learn to search on line and use scientific names, not just common ones.

This website and my social media page are followed in 109 countries. I’ve offered advice to market gardeners from Vietnam to Florida to Sierra Leone. By phone I can follow what the Cairns Garden Club is discussing on Facebook over breakfast and they can read my blogs on tropical horticulture, like ‘A taste of Vietnam from my garden / Hương vị Việt Nam trong vườn nhà tôi’.

I did my best to tilt species to favour Vietnam because my partner is a third generation organic market gardener from Central Vietnam. Thuan would like readers to know that Hue is both hotter than Cairns and wetter than either Cairns or Darwin. Subject to regular flooding (Hue flooded eleven times in 2018) ducks are often more viable than chickens because they swim. Once, when the family boat was lost, Thuan’s father used three bamboo poles to hold together three banana stems, and by lashing them together he created a raft to support three of his family.

Here are a few things you could be growing this summer:

Fifty edible leaves (“summer isn’t a good time for leafy crops in FNQ”)
Aloe vera: medicinal, or dessert;
Alternanthera sessilis ‘Purpurea’;
Amaranthus, various species and cultivars
Basil: various species and cultivars. I like Thai basil;
Brahmi herb, Bacopa monnieri;
Cassava, Manihot esculenta. My Seed Saver cultivar is prized for its leaves by Javanese gardeners;
Celery stem taro, Colocasia esculenta;
Celtuce, Lactuca sativa var. augustana;
Cosmos caudatus, edible leaves and petals;
Cosmos sulphureus, edible leaves, shoots and petals;
Cranberry hibiscus, Hibiscus acetosella, edible leaves and flowers for tea;
Edible fern, Diplazium esculentum, edible croziers;
Elephant foot yam, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, edible leaves;
Fish mint, Houttuynia cordata;
Four seasons herb, Plectranthus amboinicus;
Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum;
Hibiscus spinach, Abelmoschus esculentus;
Jute, Corchorus olitorius;
Jute, white, Corchorus capsularis;
Kaffir lime, Citrus hystrix;
Kenaf, Hibiscus cannabinus;
Korean mint, Agastache rugosa;
Krachai, Boesenbergia rotunda;
La lot, Piper sarmentosum;
Lagos spinach, Celosia spicata;
Lasia, Lasia spinosa;
Lebanese cress, Aethionema cordifolium;
Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus;
Lemongrass, East Indian, Cymbopogon flexuosus;
Lettuce, Indian, Lactuca indica;
Mexican tree spinach, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius;
Ming aralia, Polyscias fruticosa;
Moringa, Moringa oleifera;
Moroccan mint, Mentha spicata;
Native mint, Mentha satureioides;
Okinawa spinach, Gynura crepioides;
Pandan, Pandanus amarylliifolius;
Parcel, Apium graveolens;
Pawpaw, Carica papaya (peppery tasting);
Pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima;
Rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa;
Society garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, several cultivars, the most prolific being ‘John May’s Special’;
Surinam spinach, Talinum fruticosum;
Sweetleaf, Sauropus androgynus;
Sweetpotato, Ipomoea batatas;
Tarragon, Mexican, Tagetes lucida;
Thai coriander, Eryngium foetidum;
Vietnamese mint, Persicaria odorata;
Vietnamese paddy herb, Limnophylla aromatica;
Winter melon, Benincasa hispida;

Edible pods
Bean, guar, Cyamopsis tetragonoloba;
Bean, lablab, Dolichos lablab;
Bean Madagascar, Phaseolus lunatus;
Bean, mung, Vigna radiata
Bean, snake, Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis;
Bean, soy, Glycine max;
Bean, winged, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus;
Cow pea, Vigna unguiculata;

One of two tops picks for a tropical food garden, written by Leonie Norrington.

Edible roots
Cassava, Manihot esculenta;
Chinese or Hausa potato, Plectranthus rotundifolius;
Cocoyam, Xanthosoma saggitifolium;
Elephant foot yam, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius;
Galangal, Alpinia galanga;
Giant taro, Cyrtosperma merkusii;
Ginger, culinary, Zingiber officinale;
Krachai, Boesenbergia rotunda;
Taro, Colocasia esculenta;
Queensland arrowroot, Canna edulis;
Sweetpotato, Ipomoea batatas;
Turmeric, common, Curcuma longa. Plus various other species and cultivars;

Edible seed
Corn, Zea mays;
Millet (better in a dry summer), Setaria palmifolia;
Peanut, Arachis hypogea;
Serpent gourd, Trichosanthese cucumerina;
Pigeon pea, Cajanus cajan;
Sorghum (better in a dry summer),  Sorghum bicolor;
Sword bean, Canavalia gladiata;

Edible fruit
Banana, plantain, Musa x sapientum;
Bitter melon; fruit and leaves; Momordica charantia;
Capsicum, Capsicum annuum;  ‘Bull’s Horn’ is a small-fruited perennial cultivar I like;
Chilli, Capsicum annuum, C. chinense and C. baccatum; many cultivars;
Choko, Sechium edule;
Cucumber, Cucumis sativus; ‘Gympie Gold’ is a Queensland cultivar;
Eggplant, Solanum melongena, many cultivars;
Gac, Momordica cochinchinesis;
Luffa, angled, Luffa acutangula;
Luffa, round, Luffa cylindrica;
Mouse melon, Melothria scabra;
Pawpaw, Carica papaya (either green or ripe);
Pineapple, Ananas comosus, A. bracteatus;
Pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima;
Rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa (technically an edible calyx);
Serpent gourd, Trichosanthes cucumerina;
Summer cucumber, Cyclanthera pedata;
Winter melon, Benincasa hispida;

Edible flowers
Blue pea: flowers only, Clitorea ternatea;
Ginger, beehive, Zingiber spectabile;
Ginger, puyang, Zingiber myoga;
Ginger, shell, Alpinia zerumbet;
Pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima;
Rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa;
Torch ginger, Elettaria speciosa;
Turmeric, Curcuma longa, plus various other species and cultivars;
Winter melon, Benincasa hispida;

Edible shoots
Bamboo, of which there are many kinds, all produce edible shoots. They’re rich in fibre and contain good amounts of protein. Remember to boil them in water until soft. If the water turns yellow, replace it and continue cooking. Some species, like commonly grown Bambusa oldhamii, may require two or even three changes of water to remove traces of toxin. Boiled, sliced shoots can be stored in salted water for several months, and this allows me to extend the availability of my bamboo harvest to around five months.

Don’t forget the one gardening guide book every food grower in tropical Australia should have: The Seed Savers’ Handbook. If you can’t afford the most useful gardening book you’ll ever own, you can download it free from our website (paper not provided).

If you are a subtropical food gardener, don’t be jealous. I have already posted about what was available in my garden for Christmas 2019. Start growing, and maybe you’ll also have 108 things on your festive menu.

I have discussed every single plant either here on my website, or on my social media page, or in the media. There are benefits to following me.

Buy a cookbook, list ingredients, source the seed and plants, and create your own tropical food garden.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

Director, Seed Savers’ Network Inc.
Patron, National Toxics Network Inc.
Patron, Householder’s Options for Protecting the Environment Inc. (HOPE)
Co-founder, Bellis, Brisbane’s award-winning, affordable, sustainable house and garden
20th October 2020


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne says:

    Thank you great information. Anne Brooker

  2. Andrea McPherson says:

    Thanks so much for making us aware of such valuable resources and also for the list of planting options for the subtropical. Very much appreciated.

  3. I love reading your lists, Jerry… 🙂 Even though we get rare light frosts, quite a number of the tropical plants still grow here quite happily, although some need overwintering. As we are classed as being in a S/T zone, many species that you grow at Bellis do well here, too (in the Northern Rivers area). I try to push limits a bit but more in the more temperate direction, as there are herbal medicines I long to grow, and my aim is to leave this place as a little cornucopia in its own right. It’s getting there. 🙂 Thank you for your ongoing inspiration!

  4. As a Papua New Guinean I’m inspired to garden more and sustainably. Thank you Jerry.

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