Muntries

24.05.17

Muntries (Kunzea pomifera) are a native berry plant that occurs naturally in south eastern South Australia and western Victoria. The plant grows mainly along the coast, however is also found in the Big Desert region of northwest Victoria. In the wild muntries grow as a groundcover or occasionally as a semi-upright shrub, with branches spreading 3m or more.

Muntries belong to the Myrtaceae family, which also includes well-known plants such as eucalypts, bottle brushes, paperbarks, tea trees and lilly pillies.

Overview

The muntries bush has small round leaves about 3–4mm in diameter and profuse cream feathery flowers in spring. The berries grow in clusters and are up to 1cm in size, green to red in colour, with a purplish tinge appearing as they ripen. Also known as munterberries, emu apples or native cranberries, the edible fruit has a sweet, spicy, apple–juniper flavour and is crunchy in texture.

Muntries are grown commercially in Victoria and South Australia on a modest scale and also collected in the wild. They are sold fresh, frozen or dried. High in antioxidants, muntries can be eaten fresh or used in many sweet or savoury dishes. Muntries are also used in the manufacture of natural beauty products.

The supply of muntries has become more reliable and consistent with the shift from wild harvest to cultivation, however there is discussion in the industry that better cultivars are needed to improve flavour and productivity.

Traditionally, muntries were highly valued by Indigenous Australians. An important source of nutrition when eaten fresh, the surplus fruit was made into flat dried cakes and traded between tribes for weapons and other commodities. It was known by various names among Indigenous people including munthari, munta, mantirri and mantari. The berries were a welcome food source for early settlers, who used them in cakes, jams and chutneys.

Australian native foods growers are represented by Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB).

Facts and figures

  • The fruit can be used fresh, frozen or dried in numerous sweet and savoury dishes
  • The fruit is also made into jams, chutneys, sauces and natural beauty products
  • Muntries are four times higher in antioxidants than blueberries and contain wound-healing and skin-nourishing properties
  • A prostrate shrub in the wild, it has been successfully cultivated through cuttings and grafting to grow on trellising in order to maximise production
  • Under cultivation, muntries are established as an upright shrub on a trellis and the plant will bear fruit in the second year after planting and reach full production in five years

Production status

Commercial markets were established on wild harvested fruit but for many reasons, including the need for consistent levels of production and quality and concern about the environmental impact of wild harvest, nearly all fruit traded is produced under cultivation.

Enterprises vary greatly in size and scale, ranging from individual growers who produce a range of native foods, and undertake their own processing, sales and marketing to larger commercial operations, some of which are vertically integrated. Three producers are Indigenous communities in South Australia.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Used largely by the food service industry, muntries are sold fresh, frozen or dried via specialty stores, tourist outlets, markets and events.

The berries can be eaten as fresh fruit or added to salads or desserts. Processed berries are used in a variety of products such as pies, juices, chutneys, jams, sauces, fruit straps, ice cream and wine. They make a good substitute in recipes that require sultanas.

Muntries have a spicy apple flavour, with a juniper essence. The fruit contains high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C.

Muntries are being used in the manufacture of natural skincare products by a small number of established cosmetic companies. They are valued for their natural waxes and high level of antioxidants, one of which is also an excellent wound healer.

Research projects have been conducted to understand and investigate the properties of muntries, and other native foods, including the Health Benefits of Australian Native Foods, Potential Physiological Activities of Selected Australian Herbs and Fruits and defining the flavours of native foods.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Muntries are cultivated in their natural habitat, mainly along the southern coast of Australia, with inland extensions, from Portland in Victoria to the Eyre Peninsula and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. As cultivars are developed, growing regions may become more widespread.

Soil type

Muntries prefer moderately acid to strongly alkaline soils, and grow best with pH(water) levels of 6.0 to 8.0.

The soils should be well-draining and preferably sandy in texture. Wild plants are also found to grow well on broken limestone soils, found in coastal regions of south east South Australia. Waterlogged and extremely dry soils should be avoided.

Climate

The wild range of muntries suggests that a mild Mediterranean climate, with coastal influences, is probably the most suitable for muntries production, although experience in cultivation suggests the plant possesses some frost tolerance.

Wild populations grow in areas with a natural rainfall of 500–800mm. Experience in cultivation has shown production to benefit from irrigation in addition to natural rainfall.

Varieties

Several selections of muntries are reported. The variety Rivoli Bay, which originated from the south east coast of South Australia, and was selected on the basis of fruit size, flavour, production, appearance and texture, is no longer protected by Plant Breeders Rights.

Rivoli Bay and other selections in cultivation may be available as cuttings from current growers. Muntries plants are also available from some nurseries but these selections have not been tested for commercial production of fruit.

Commercial plantings of muntries require seedlings of several genetically different plant stock to ensure cross-pollination and subsequent fruit development.

Planting and crop management

Current cultivation of muntries is based primarily on selections taken from wild populations of the plant. While they grow naturally as a prostrate ground cover, muntries cultivated for commercial production are trellised, allowing easier harvesting and greater orchard efficiency.

Plantations should be set up so that the space between the rows allows for machinery access and generally ranges from 1.5–3.5m.

Between-plant spacing within the rows is governed by expected growth rates and how quickly the grower wants to achieve maximum canopy development. Closer spacings will achieve maximum canopy area, and thus maximum yields earlier in the planting’s life but wider plantings will cost less to establish but longer to achieve maximum canopy development and yields. Economics suggests that plant spacings within the row of 1.5m or less are advisable.

Although muntries enjoy growing in full sun, some shade is beneficial during the establishment phase if growing in a very hot region.

Adequate irrigation water is essential for cultivation, even though muntries is a hardy plant that can withstand dry periods and high temperatures. Moderate water in early spring will stimulate flowering and subsequently fruit development, however overwatering — especially in early spring — will overstimulate vegetative growth which competes with flowering and fruit setting.

The use of soil moisture monitoring systems, such as tensiometers or capacitance probes, enables water requirements to be managed effectively and efficiently.

Some winter pruning is likely to be beneficial. Tip pruning may help to thicken stems and reduce elongation. Branch pruning may be required to avoid crowding on trellises, remove older unfruitful wood and help balance vegetative and fruiting behaviour.

In the first season following establishment, frequent and relatively heavy fertiliser applications, particularly of nitrogen, should maximise growth to develop a good plant structure and produce next season’s fruiting wood. A relatively low phosphorus fertiliser, suitable for native plants, should be used.

Once established, restricting nutrient availability in winter and spring will avoid excessive vegetative growth in spring and stimulate flowering. After harvest, encourage vegetative growth, which will form next year’s fruiting wood. A complete micronutrient foliar spray may be advisable in autumn.

Weeds, pests and diseases

Weed control is important when preparing the site for planting, as weeds will compete with new plants for water and nutrients. Ongoing maintenance of plant rows and inter-row areas, through chemical or physical removal of weeds, is required to optimise productivity.

Birds, a common pest of many berry fruits, are generally not a problem for muntries growers but they can be a problem in some areas such as Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia, where netting of trellises is required. Others pests, such as lizards and millipedes, are known to graze on prostrate wild plants, however few problems have been caused by these and other pests, and diseases, in trellised cultivation.

Some plant dieback has been observed, which may be due to soil fungi such as Pythium spp. and Phytophthora spp. Good soil drainage should help alleviate the problem and chemical treatments, such as phosphorous acid, appears to have potential as a control method. The main disease problem faced by some growers is a disease that is little understood and referred to as ‘dieback’ within the industry—highlighting the need for further research for the industry.

Infrastructure Requirements

Cultivation of muntries requires standard equipment for orchard maintenance, including:

  • tractor
  • irrigation system (soil moisture monitoring equipment is also recommended)
  • spray equipment with separate spray units for pesticides and herbicides
  • slasher or mower
  • trailer and farm vehicle
  • farm shed
  • equipment for manual harvest (secateurs)
  • shallow storage containers for holding and transporting fruit
  • sieves and winnowing equipment to remove foreign matter from harvested fruit
  • grading table
  • cold storage and/or freezing facilities
  • knives or cutting machine for halving fruit
  • freezer or vacuum packaging for fresh fruit
  • drying facilities, racks for sun drying or ovens for fan drying for dried fruit
  • food-grade cooking, packaging and storage facilities if product being value-added
  • pruning equipment.

A single plane vertical trellising system, generally 1m high, is required if production is to be maximised. As wind damage occurs when plants reach more than about 30cm from the ground, wind protection either from vegetation or artificial windbreaks is essential when the plants are trellised. Wind is also thought to affect levels of production due to reduction of cross-pollinating insects.

Harvesting & Processing

Harvesting of the fresh fruit usually occurs from early February to early April, depending on the variety. Fruit maturity may be achieved as early as December in hotter areas. Fruit can remain on the plants for 2–3 months and in the wild may be gathered as late as May or June. However, in commercial production the harvest time is likely to be shorter, as older fruit can be dry, floury and poor in flavour.

Muntries are harvested by hand and sieved or winnowed to remove foreign matter. They are graded on farm for size and quality. Around 2kg of berries are obtained from mature cultivated plants (approximately five years old), and plants start bearing fruit in the second year after planting.

Hand harvesting is best done in the morning, when berries are cooler and crisper, and transferred to shallow harvest containers to avoid crushing. Immediately after harvest, the berries should be promptly frozen, or alternatively, kept in cool storage throughout the supply chain, depending on market destination and requirements. Once frozen, they can be stored for up to 24 months.

Producers sell to wholesalers and processors, although some growers also process and value-add themselves on site, then sell their products online and at cafes, markets, specialty food stores and tourist outlets.

Markets & Marketing

Most fruit that reaches processors and restaurants (the main markets at present) is harvested from the wild. Market demand for consistent supply, combined with concerns over the environmental impact of wild harvesting in the often fragile coastal dune systems, means that cultivated plantings are increasing in importance.

The current market for muntries parallels that of many other Australian native foods. There is consistent demand from the food service industry and processed products are sold via food speciality stores, tourist outlets, at markets and food events. Online sales are also increasing. Some muntries products have been exported to customers with interests in the pharmaceutical benefits (high levels of antioxidants).

Despite good market prospects, muntries are not used as widely throughout the industry as other native foods, and markets were oversupplied. The native food industry stocktake reported that industry participants agreed that further market development was needed. In an effort to help promote the integration of native food products into the wider market, RIRDC has produced a report defining the flavours of native foods, with the aim of helping to define a common set of flavour and aroma descriptors and characteristics. Value-adding is considered an important part of making growing muntries commercially viable.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

There are several challenges common to all native food producers and their industry more broadly, such as annual variation in production volume and maintaining a consistent supply of product to customers, and concurrent oversupply of niche markets and undersupply of potential large-scale markets.

One of the main challenges faced by the muntries industry is a lack of market development, and limited opportunities due to a lack of consumer awareness.

A Muntries Group was established by the South Australian Native Food Association in 2011, with the aim of promoting the muntries industry and enable coordination and information sharing between members, as well as seeking support for research and market development.

Cultivar development has been limited, partly due to lack of funding for long-term research, presenting another key challenge. Cultivar development is desirable for increased productivity, and also to improve flavour as muntries have no clear flavour advantage over other fruits.

Some growers are struggling to contain a disease which is little understood and is referred to as ‘dieback’ by the industry.

Regulatory considerations

The standard regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements and the loading/unloading of harvested product), also apply to muntries operations.

Muntries are classified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) as a traditional food of Australia. They are listed under the Codex Alimentarius system, which is required to import food products into Europe.

Certification by organisations such as Freshcare and HACCP may be required to sell product to supermarkets, major retailers and food service industries. Prospective growers should speak with potential customers to fully understand any product certification requirements. When processing any raw product and value-adding the food standards regulations, as administered by FSANZ and set out in Chapter 3 of its Food Standards Code need to be considered.

Image Gallery

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Muntries on trellis