Wattleseed

24.05.17

There are almost 1,000 Acacia species, commonly called wattles, growing in Australia. Of these, wattleseeds, leaves or timber of over one hundred species have been used by Indigenous Australians for thousands of years as food, medicine or materials for tools and weapons.

Overview

Several species have been used for commercial harvest for a variety of reasons: abundance of seed, ease of access, taste and ease to process. However, not all species are suitable for these applications or commercial production. The most popular species for commercial harvest of wattleseed are:

  • Acacia victoriae – elegant wattle
  • A. aneura – mulga wattle
  • A. pycnantha – golden wattle
  • A. retinodes – silver wattle
  • A. longifolia var. sophorae – coastal wattle.

Since the 1990s, there has been commercial interest in harvesting wattleseed, and roasting it for sale, whole or ground. Some businesses extract essence from the seed. It has a strong nutty and/or coffee flavour with a slight bitterness. The flour is used in cakes, damper, breads, casseroles and curries; the essence is used as a flavouring ingredient; and wattleseed is used in ice-cream, sauces, marinades and as a caffeine-free ‘coffee’. On occasions, the flowers (without stalks) have been used in pancakes, scones and omelettes.

Wattleseed has a low glycaemic index, high levels of protein and provides a good source of magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron and selenium. It has been a staple food ingredient for Indigenous Australians for at least 4,000 years. Since 1970 some edible species of wattle have been exported to Africa to assist drought-affected populations create a staple food source.

The market demand is currently met by a combination of ‘wild harvest’ and cultivation. There is strong involvement of indigenous communities in the wild harvest and cultivation of wattleseed, and these communities have well established links to the subsequent business/value chain. However, year to year supply can be variable due to supply being significantly made up of wild harvested product.

The production/harvest for commercial purposes is a small and developing industry, within the developing native foods industry. Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB) is the peak body for the Australian native food industry.

Facts and figures

  • Wattleseed has provided Indigenous Australians with a rich source of protein and carbohydrate for thousands of years
  • Not all wattleseed are edible, species choice is very important in this regard
  • The seeds of Acacias have very hard husks and can remain intact, on the ground, for up to 20 years in their natural environment, usually only germinating after bushfires
  • Harvested seed is roasted and sold whole or ground; it has a strong nutty and/or coffee flavour with a slight bitterness
  • Wattleseed flour is used in cakes, damper, breads, casseroles and curries; the essence is used as a flavouring ingredient; and wattleseed is used in ice-cream, sauces, marinades and as a caffeine-free ‘coffee’

The market is small and prospective growers of wattle trees are strongly advised to understand market opportunities and market size before establishing a plantation

Production status

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

There are around six processors of wattleseed in Australia, who source their own seed through directly harvesting wild trees, contracting harvesters to collect wild seed or cultivating their own plantation of wattle trees. The harvest, cultivation and /or processing of wattleseed is one of several/many enterprises for harvesters and processers alike. The market demand for wattleseed is simply not large enough to justify a single enterprise operation.

A mature wattle tree can yield about 10–15kg of seed per tree. One native food company markets 100kg of wattleseed product per year, harvested from 20–30 trees, indicating the small number of trees involved within an established enterprise.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Harvested wattleseed is roasted before use and it has a strong nutty and/or coffee flavour, with a slight bitterness. Roasted wattleseed can be used whole or ground in a wide range of sweet and savoury foods. Wattleseed is an excellent ingredient in cakes, biscuits, breads and damper; it can be used as flavour and thickener in casseroles and curries; it is used in sauces, marinades and dukkas; and in fine chocolate and ice-cream.  The liquid essence can be extracted and is used in a range of products including a wattleseed balsamic vinegar and beer. Wattleseed has also been used to make caffeine-free ‘coffee’.

Nutritional analysis has shown that wattleseed contains potassium, calcium, iron and zinc in comparatively high concentrations. Wattleseed is a good source of energy—averaging about 1,500 kilojoules per 100 grams.

It has a low glycaemic index, because its carbohydrate is starch-based rather than sugar-based, which has potential application for food for diabetics.

Wattleseed contains most vitamins except for C, B12 and riboflavin. Including the coat, wattleseed contains up to 20% protein and over 30% fibre. The seed can be stored for up to 10 years without losing its nutritional value.

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

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Wattle species grow all over Australia, and those most commonly used for commercial procurement of wattleseed are located throughout the arid regions of the Northern Territory and South Australia. Plantations of wattleseed exist in the south east of South Australia and near the Grampians in Victoria.

So long as the species is safe to eat, endemic species of any region of Australia could be harvested or cultivated from wattleseed production. See the ‘Varieties’ section for publications providing information on suitable species for different regions.

Soil type

Wattles grow naturally on a wide range of soil types and textures, in most parts of Australia. A species endemic to a region would be well suited to cultivation in the same region.

Climate

Wattles grow naturally in a wide range of climate zones across Australia. A species endemic to a region would be well suited to cultivation in the same region.

Varieties

As wattleseed is largely wild harvested, the species collected tends to be what is growing within the location of harvest. The most popular species for commercial production are: Acacia victoriae – elegant wattle; A. aneura– mulga wattle; A. pycnantha – golden wattle; A. retinodes – silver wattle; and A. longifolia var. sophorae – coastal wattle. Although A. victoriae is the most accessible species for commercial scale production there is growing interest in A. retinodes.

There are no registered varieties or cultivars for the different species of Acacia used in commercial plantations for wattleseed production. Some growers have collected seed from provenance stock to establish their plantations. Local Landcare groups or wattleseed growers may be able to assist in providing information on seed sources.

Printed books that provide good explanations about species suitable for wattleseed production include:

  • Bushfires and Bushtucker — Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia Peter Latz (1995). IAD Press Alice Springs
  • Edible wattle seeds of Southern Australia Bruce Maslin et al (1998). CSIRO Australia

The report Wattle Seed Production in low rainfall areas also lists possible species to use for commercial production.

Experienced growers and processors recommend that an endemic species be used for cultivation, rather than importing a species from a different climatic region.

Planting and crop management

Several commercial plantations of Acacia species have been established however, management systems for wattleseed production in plantations have not been documented.

Typically, wattleseed growers have commenced established plantations as a means of diversifying their existing business. In some plantations, the Acacia species is used as host plant (e.g. for quandong), as a windbreak or as plantations to manage accessions to the watertable and possible salinity problems.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Several commercial plantations of Acacia species have been established, however management systems for wattleseed production in plantations have not been documented.

Infrastructure Requirements

Wattleseed is planted using standard planting techniques for either seed or seedlings.

Wattleseed is harvested by placing a tarpaulin or other type of mat under the tree, and beating the foliage of the tree to make the ripe pods fall to the ground. Alternatively, a tree shaker may be used to loosen the pods from the tree and catch them as they fall. The concept of a harvester has been contemplated by some growers but is yet to be realised.

After harvest, the seed is released and/or separated from the pod by threshing and sieving, using equipment adapted from other agricultural industries.

Some producers choose to value add their seed, in which case roasting and grinding equipment will be required, as well as packaging and storage facilities.

Harvesting & Processing

Wattleseed is harvested in summer. The ripe seed pods are removed from trees by beating the foliage and collecting them in a tarpaulin or other type of mat placed under the tree. After harvest, the seed is separated from the pod by threshing and sieving, using seed threshing equipment or machinery adapted from other agricultural industries.

Growers may sell the raw seed to processors or value-add their own product (which is often regarded as necessary to make the enterprise profitable). The processing of wattleseed involves roasting the seed and then in most instances, grinding the seed for use as a food ingredient. Some growers process the seed to extract wattleseed essence.

Markets & Marketing

The market for wattleseed is oversupplied. However, because the market relies heavily on wild harvested product, the situation can change rapidly with a few dry or drought years reducing harvests to very low levels. Wattleseed is able to be stored for up to 10 years without loss of quality, which enables the highs and lows of production to be evened out.

Harvesters/growers may sell raw seed to processors; or they may choose to roast and/or grind the seed, selling it as an ingredient for food products; or they may choose to value-add the roasted product making a wide range of products for sale at farmers markets or online. Wattleseed, in various forms, is sought directly by chefs and restaurants. A number of processors manufacture and distribute wattleseed products as part of a broader range of native foods, which are sold online and through speciality food and tourist stores, supermarkets and export markets.

The market is regarded by industry as boutique and considerable development is required if wattleseed is to become a product of mainstream markets. Slow market growth is expected, and with improvements in cultivation and harvest methods, the annual production volume is forecast to increase.

Because the market for wattleseed is small, prospective growers of wattle trees are strongly advised to comprehensively research products and market opportunities, and understand the size of potential markets, before establishing a plantation.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

The advancement of the wattleseed industry depends on many factors but the greatest challenge is a lack of market development. There needs to be greater understanding of the influence of different Acacia species and roasting techniques on the flavour and qualities of the wattleseed. A lack of supply chain traceability is regarded as a weakness by industry. Some within the industry believe that greater understanding and promotion of health benefits and nutritional value is needed.

From a production perspective, the key challenge for the wattleseed industry is overcoming the erratic supply associated with wild harvested product (due to seasonable variability and labour availability). Whether seed is sourced from the wild or plantations, pod damage and seed loss can result from bushfires, high winds, heavy rain and hail. In the absence of irrigation, a drought or dry season will limit yield.

Wattleseed potentially faces competition from cheaper African wattleseed. The product is sourced from Australian Acacia species (not the species harvested in Australia) that were sent to Africa in the 1970s, but the seed is poorer quality than the current Australian harvest.

Wattleseed processors face increasing competition for purchasing harvested seed from mine site rehabilitation projects that are seeking significant quantities of seed of native plant species.

Regulatory considerations

Wild harvest of wattleseed requires permission from state governments under Wildlife Conservation or Native Vegetation legislation.

Wattleseed is classified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) as a traditional food of Australia and it is included in the FSANZ nutrient tables. 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.

Image Gallery

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Wattleseed pods on wattle tree

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Ground wattleseed