Bush tomato is a small perennial shrub that spreads by underground suckers and grows to a height of 30–45cm. It has grey-green leaves and mauve-blue frilled flowers, and there may be spines on the stems. The fruit of the bush tomato plant is globular-shaped and usually 10–15mm in size. It turns from green to yellow as it ripens, then dries on the bush until it is a reddish colour and looks like a raisin.
Bush tomato has a strong flavour which has been described as earthy caramel and tomato with a pungent aftertaste. The sun dried fruit may be eaten directly after harvest but are generally further dried and ground to be used as a spice or flavouring. Caution must be exercised when harvesting bush tomato, as the green (unripe) fruits are potentially toxic. Further, the ripe fruit of some related species are toxic, so correct plant identification is critical if wild harvesting.
The demand for bush tomato has outstripped the supply possible from wild harvest. To meet growing demand for the fruit, bush tomato is produced by cultivation in the Northern Territory and South Australia. To support this new industry, research is underway to develop the horticultural, fruit quality and genetic understanding of bush tomato.
Facts and figures
- Names for bush tomatoes from indigenous languages include akatyerr, akatjurra, katyerr, kampurarrpa and yakajirri
- There are over 100 species of Solanum in Australia but only six are known to produce edible fruit — so correct identification of wild plants before harvest is critical
- Demand for bush tomato and its value-added product outstrip supply
- Cultivation of bush tomato is a sustainable means of meeting market demand, and by managing irrigation schedules the fruiting cycle can be manipulated to some extent to distribute timing of fruit maturity
- Bush tomato can be dried on-farm and stored for extended periods allowing farmers to control the flow of product to market
- Most bush tomato growers sell raw product to processors
The wild harvest of bush tomato is undertaken mainly in South Australia and the Northern Territory as it is highly adapted to arid environments.
Wild harvest can account for up to 80% of supply of product in good seasons, however this source is always variable and unpredictable and in normal years it is estimated that approximately half of production is derived from wild harvest.
Bush tomato is grown commercially by five Indigenous communities in diverse locations across South Australia and two communities in the Northern Territory. All communities have grower contracts to sell their product to one of two major processors. In addition to the involvement of these Indigenous communities and the two major processors of bush tomato, there are a number of smaller enterprises that grow or buy bush tomato and sell it to the food service industry or value-add and sell at farmer’s markets and online.
The volume of bush tomato on the market fluctuates greatly from year to year.