Riberry

24.05.17

The riberry (Syzygium leuhmanii) is a subtropical rainforest species that is cultivated mainly in northern New South Wales. The tree, also known as small-leaved lilly pilly or clove lilli pilli, produces fruit that is strongly clove and spice flavoured, and is an excellent processing and culinary fruit.

Overview

The riberry tree is medium to large-sized and occurs naturally in littoral and subtropical rainforests, in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and in tropical rainforests of northern Queensland. In the wild, the tree occasionally grows to 30 metres high and has a buttressed base. The leaves are small and glossy and the crown of the tree is dense and sits above the tall trunk.

The fruit is a small pear-shaped berry, 10–15mm long, red–pink in colour, and with white flesh. Riberries are harvested from late November through to mid-January and need to be refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to three weeks and frozen for up to two years.

Riberry has long been a food source for Indigenous Australians, as a raw fruit, and for early European settlers who used the fruit in jams and cordials. Wild harvest of the fruit declined through the 1990s, and newly established plantations came into full production, capable of meeting market demand by the early 2000s.

Cultivated plantings are important to meet market demand for consistent year-round supply of the fruit, and to address concerns about the environmental impact of wild harvesting in the often fragile and fragmented, littoral and subtropical rainforest systems.

Facts and figures

  • The riberry (or lilly pilly) was one of the first edible plants to be noted during Captain Cook’s visit to Australia in 1770
  • The riberry is found in coastal rainforests in north east New South Wales, south east Queensland and far north Queensland
  • Estimated annual production of riberry is four to five tonnes per annum
  • The fruit has a tart, spicy flavour and is used in a wide range of sweet and savoury food products
  • Cutting-grown trees, used to establish plantations, can produce 3–5kgs of marketable fruit in their third year
  • Mature trees have been known to produce up to 70kg of fruit in a year

Production status

Accurate information is not readily available for the native foods industry but a stocktake of the industry published in 2012, provides good estimates of industry characteristics, production figures and product value.

Around 70% of production was by a company that produces product from several subtropical properties in New South Wales and Queensland, which collectively total 6,000 trees on 60 hectares. The company was established to create a critical mass in terms of supply of fruit and to create economies of scale for the purchase of inputs. There are five growers in the industry considered commercial producers, some of whom participate in the riberry company previously mentioned. The balance of riberry production comes from smaller-scale producers (10–20), who value-add their fruit and distribute primarily through farmers markets. Wild harvested fruit is a minor supply source, and mainly a supplementary source of product when yields of cultivated fruit are low.

Riberry alone would not generate sufficient income for a business to be viable or sustainable. Typically, riberry is grown as one enterprise in a business that grows a combination of native foods and other crops, such as seasonal vegetables or subtropical exotic fruits. In terms of business diversity, one business may have up to ten different species in production.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Riberry is used as an ingredient to give fruit-type flavour to a wide range of sweet and savoury products. It gives a distinct flavour to jams, sauces, syrups, glazes, confit, chutney, cakes, salad dressing and confectionery.

The fruit has a refreshingly tart, spicy flavour with a hint of cloves and cinnamon. The fruit contains a range of chemicals that give it its flavour characteristics, therefore the taste of the fruit can vary depending on the plant or the parent stock of a plantation.

A number of research projects have been conducted to understand and investigate the properties of riberry, and other native foods, including, health benefits and health-enhancing compounds in native foods, physiological activities of native foodsnutritional datafunctional properties and defining the flavours of native foods.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Riberry is cultivated in plantations predominantly in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, however, there are also plantations on the south coast of New South Wales, and in Victoria and South Australia.

Riberry is adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. The lilly pilly group of trees, to which riberry belongs, performs well in home gardens and is planted extensively as a street tree throughout much of Australia.

Soil type

Riberry is an adaptable species, and grows well in all soil types and textures, however water holding capacity in sandy soils and drainage in clay soils may have to be addressed to maximise production.

In its natural environment, riberry grows in soils with pH(water) in the range 4.5–5.5 but under cultivation, a soil pH of 5.5–6 allows for better nutrient uptake from applied fertiliser.

Climate

Although riberry grows naturally in subtropical and tropical climates, it can tolerate quite low temperatures in winter and mild frost, especially once the tree is established. Damage has not been observed at temperatures as low as 0°C, however it will sustain damage if there are extended periods below -2°C.

High summer temperatures, greater than approximately 35°C, during flowering and especially fruiting can be detrimental to production.

The subtropical climate, of a wet summer and autumn, and a dry winter and spring, is ideal for riberry production; however plantations have performed well in the Mediterranean environments of South Australia and Victoria. In Mediterranean environments, mulching is recommended and irrigation over summer may be required, as is sometimes the case in subtropical environments as well.

While riberry occurs naturally in areas receiving 1,200–2,000mm of rainfall annually, it is quite tolerant of wet and dry soil conditions.

Varieties

There have been several selections and hybrids made from naturally occurring or seed-grown riberry trees, which have been based on qualities, such as ‘seedlessness’ and the size and flavour of fruit. These selections have been propagated vegetatively to provide a stock of known characteristics for commercial production.

Varieties of riberry include Glovers Seedless and Vic’s Choice. Plants are available from selected nurseries on the east coast of New South Wales and Queensland. Further information can be found on the Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB) website.

Planting and crop management

Riberry is best grown in a mixed species plantation. A single row of riberry trees may be alternated with single or double rows of others species such as lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, lemon aspen and Davidson plum, to name a few. A monoculture plantation will provide management efficiencies but a mixed species planting significantly reduces the risk of pest infestation and disease incursions that are often encountered in monoculture production systems. Further, a mixed species plantation spreads business risk and increases business opportunities. Apart from lemon myrtle, the markets for native foods are not large or secure enough to justify large-scale plantings of a single species.

Plantation layout is important to optimise growing conditions for the trees. The field should have a northerly aspect to maximise exposure to sunlight, and ideally, the rows of plants should run north–south to give equal sunlight to all plants, year round. Plantation layout also needs to take into consideration the best design for machinery access and minimising soil erosion, therefore a compromise of true north–south rows may be needed.

Some soil correction may be required to maximise growing conditions. Sandy soils will benefit from generous applications of organic matter, which can improve the water holding capacity of the soil. Good drainage needs to be ensured on clay soils, which can be achieved by planting on a sloping field or mounding of the planting rows to 250–500mm high.

Mulching the rows on a regular basis will be beneficial for moisture retention, weed suppression, protecting the soil from erosion and increasing soil organic matter.

Plantations are generally established using plants grown from cuttings, and these are placed in cultivated planting rows at least 2.5–3.5m apart. The spacing between rows will be determined by the width of machinery that is used for maintenance and harvesting, but it is generally recommended to be 5m wide. Seed-grown plants may grow to be bigger than cutting-grown plants, and may need greater inter-row spacing. Prospective growers should discuss the pros and cons of seedlings versus cuttings with an advisor or experienced grower, prior to establishing a plantation. It is important to note that cutting grown stock will produce consistent fruit types and seedling trees will vary in fruit quality, sometimes quite considerably. This will impact on marketability.

The plantation should be protected from strong winds, especially when riberry is flowering and fruiting during spring and summer. Native windbreaks can be planted to reduce the impact of wind, with the additional benefits of adding biodiversity value to the plantation area, reducing evaporation from the plantation and providing habitat for insect predators and flower pollinators.

Irrigation is advisable to ensure good establishment results. Irrigation may also be required in established plantations to supplement unseasonably dry periods. While riberry tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, extremely dry soil and waterlogging should be avoided, especially during the fruiting period. Soil moisture monitoring equipment, such as tensiometers, allows soil moisture characteristics to be understood better and irrigation to be managed effectively and efficiently.

As with several native food crops, little is known of the nutrient requirements of riberry. As experience with the crop accumulates, it is envisaged that firmer guidelines and objective assessment techniques will become available. In the meantime, some general principles of fertiliser use can be applied as suggested in the document Riberry Production.

Further cropping and production information is available in the publication Understanding the cropping behaviour of Riberry.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Weeds need to be controlled at seedling establishment to reduce competition for nutrients, water and sunlight. Mulching the planting row will help suppress weed growth through the establishment phase and as the tree matures. Hand weeding is required on occasions to remove rainforest trees, such as camphor laurel, that germinate from seed spread by birds.

Birds, particularly bowerbirds, may cause some damage but at present grey-headed flying foxes (fruit bats) are the biggest pest problem, potentially causing up to 30% loss of the crop. Control measures for flying fox include light and sound deterrents. Netting of the plantations would be the ultimate control measure but it is currently uneconomical to net a native food tree plantation.

Riberries may be affected by scale insects, and associated sooty moulds, which can be managed effectively by natural oil sprays. Aphids may also be a problem. Riberry fruit can be attacked by a seed borer but this has not been a problem for commercial production.

Since 2011, myrtle rust has been a serious disease concern for several native food tree species, however it is yet to present itself as a serious disease of riberry. Nonetheless, growers should remain vigilant in monitoring riberry trees for this or any other disease or pest.

Infrastructure Requirements

The cultivation of riberry requires standard equipment for plantation maintenance such as a tractor, mower or slasher, sprayer and pruning equipment.

An irrigation system and soil moisture monitoring equipment is required if production is to be maximised through supplementary water supply in dry times.

Nets are set up under trees to collect ripe fruit as it falls, and fruit is collected by hand. Picking bags or boxes will be required to take fruit back to the handling area.

The equipment and infrastructure required for post-harvest management will include a washing system, and sorting table or machine to clean and grade fruit; and facilities for cool and/or cold storage; a commercial-grade certified food-handling kitchen if value-adding; and dispatch, office and warehousing facilities if value-adding and marketing.

Harvesting & Processing

The main harvest period for riberry in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland is from late November to mid-January. Plantings in the southern parts of Australia may produce fruit into later February.

Nets are installed under the trees to collect ripe fruit that drops from the tree, and the fruit is collected on a daily basis or several times a day at the peak of the season.

Picked fruit is washed, sorted, packed and put into cold storage the day it is picked. Fruit will keep for short periods of up to two weeks if placed in refrigerated cool rooms but it needs to be frozen (–16 to –24°C) to keep for long periods. Frozen fruit will remain in good condition for up to two years.

Depending on the market the grower has arranged, the fruit will be sold as frozen product to a wholesaler or processor, or it will be processed on farm into a range of value-added products. Some growers use contract services for the pulping and cold storage of their fruit, and then take delivery of their own product when they are ready to commence their own processing to produce retail products.

Processing of the fruit takes place in food-grade kitchens, and ranges from the production of jams, sauces and cordials, through to yoghurts, baked goods and confectionery.

Markets & Marketing

Supply and demand are in balance for the riberry industry, in the small volume, high value market segment. However, typical of many native industries, there is an undersupply of high volume, low unit value product.

Frozen fruit may be sold directly to manufacturers for the production of retail products or to processors who pulp the fruit and then sell on to manufacturers. Some growers operate across the whole supply chain, i.e. grow, process and value-add the fruit, as this is more profitable for a small holding than just selling fruit. Other growers work in cooperative arrangements, to gain economies of scale in the storage and processing aspects of the supply chain.

The industry stocktake reported that about 50% of riberry production was sold through farmers markets as value-added product, 30% was sold through distributors and the remaining 20% was sold online. The stocktake reports that when the industry can supply larger volumes, individuals or cooperatives will be in a position to lower unit prices and attract larger manufacturers. Reportedly, food manufacturers will find the crop appealing when a single source can guarantee a minimum annual supply of 8–10 tonnes.

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.

Economic viability and sustainability for riberry production, and other native foods, requires much larger scale production (high volume) at lower production costs. This stage of industry growth is challenging for the industry as a whole, as well as individual growers.

Increased market demand for riberry is essential to grow the industry, and this requires greater understanding by professional and retail consumers of the practical, nutritive and functional features of riberry.

At the field production level, growers of riberry face major pest management issues with the control of flying foxes, which can have a major impact on fruit quality and production volumes.

Regulatory considerations

Riberry is classified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) as a traditional food of Australia and it is included in the FSANZ nutrient tables. Riberry is 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, consideration should be given to food standards regulations, as administered by FSANZ and set out in Chapter 3 of its Food Standards Code.

Publications

Publications/information

Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia RIRDC report (2014)

Australian Native Food Industry Stocktake RIRDC report (2012)

Understanding the cropping behaviour of riberry RIRDC publication (2010)

Riberry – species profile published on the website of Australian Native Food & Botanicals

Riberry Production published on the website of Australian Bushfoods

The New Crop Industries Handbook – Native Foods RIRDC publication (2008) extract of New Crop Industries Handbook RIRDC publication (2004)

Image Gallery

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Riberries on tree

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Frozen riberries

Related Publications

03.03.09

Emerging Animal and Plant Industries - Their Value to Australia (2nd Edition)

10.08.12

Australian Native Food Industry Stocktake

20.10.10

Understanding the Cropping Behaviour of Riberry (Syzygium leuhnmannii)

20.02.08

The New Crop Industries Handbook - Native Foods