Another Santalum sp. also referred to as quandong is bitter quandong (S. murrayanum), which grows in mallee and woodland environments. The tree is similar to S. acumination but the fruit is very bitter. The third is the blue quandong (Elaeocarpus grandis), also called silver quandong, brush quandong, blue fig and coolan. It mainly grows beside streams and in dense coastal and mountainous rainforests. The fruit is blue, sour and insipid in taste.
The quandong (S. acumination) belongs to the Santalaceae family, which also includes sandalwood (Santalum spp.) and native cherries (Exocarpos spp.). Most plants of this family are hemiparasitic, which means they rely on host plants for water and soil nutrients, but not for sugars. In a natural situation, Santalum spp. seem to rely on nitrogen fixing trees such as Acacia spp. and Casuarina spp. though it’s known to parasitise many other legumes, shrubs, herbs and grasses. Quandong normally has more than one host at a time.
The tree can vary in height from one to six metres. The leaves are 3–9cm, long and narrow, typically eucalypt shaped, and olive green in colour. Tiny flowers appear on summer, forming fruit that ripen in the following spring. The mature fruit is round, 15–25mm wide with shiny red skin. The flesh is 3–5mm thick, yellow to red in colour, dry-textured and tart-tasting.
The fruit has long been an important food of Indigenous Australians, and it was a welcome addition to the diets of European settlers. Commercially harvested or cultivated quandongs are mostly used to make preserves and sauces, and to a lesser extent, pie filling, cordial and liqueur.
The development of commercial cultivars by CSIRO commenced in 1973 and during the 1990s and 2000s, the commercial prospects for quandong were very promising. However, the millennium drought had a significant negative impact on many established orchards, as have pests and diseases. The quandong-host relationship has proved difficult to manage in cultivated conditions through the drought, which has resulted in a smaller than expected industry situation.
The Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB) is the peak body for the Australian native food industry. The Australian Quandong Industry Association formed in 1992 to help guide the development of the industry, but it is no longer operational.
Facts and figures
- Quandong fruit is mainly traded frozen or dried, and is used in preserves, sauces and desserts; to a lesser extent, fresh fruit is used in the restaurant trade
- The quandong is a hemiparasitic plant, and performs best when planted in association with other grasses, shrubs or trees—the host plant offers a second opportunity for a crop within the orchard
- The tree generally grows to about 3–4 metres and produces a commercial quantity of fruit four years after planting
- There has been a significant decline commercial production since 2000, due to drought, quandong die-back, quandong moth, poor establishment and difficulties managing the host-plant relationship
- The industry suffers from inconsistent quality and quantity of production from season to season, making it difficult to establish a premium-grade fruit market; but can deliver easily to the lower priced market of processing-grade fruit
Accurate information is not readily available for the native foods industry but a 2012 stocktake of the industry provides good estimates of industry characteristics, production figures and product value.
Production peaked in around 2000, with 25 tonnes being harvested. About one third of this came from 26,000 trees in cultivated trees and the remainder from the wild. This has significantly decreased. About 90% of production comes from commercial plantations, and the rest is wild harvested.
There are 25 commercial growers in Australia, several with large orchards of more than 1000 trees, but most with less than 500 trees.
A quandong enterprise is typically part of a larger farming operation or a ‘weekend’ enterprise. Sometimes the quandongs are hosted on plants that are also productive (e.g. acacia producing wattle seeds) and many growers value-add on site.