Bunya Nuts were a traditional food of the Australian Aboriginal people in a limited area of rainforests, predominantly in South-East Queensland, and especially in part of the Great Dividing Range now known as the Bunya Mountains National Park. They resemble chestnuts, and are equally tasty. The nuts mature in summer, and hostilities were suspended as Aborigines travelled long distances to feast on the nuts. Their native habitat was mostly cleared, but some early white farmers planted Bunya pines for household use. There is renewed interest in Bunya nuts among the Australian Aboriginal and settler population. In 2002 a Bunya Symposium was held at Griffith University. The large population increase in South-East Queensland over the next 20 years is likely to further reduce the number of Bunya pines.
The nuts come from a conifer in the genus Araucaria which dates back to the Jurassic era 180 million years ago. When Gondwana separated into different land masses 45 million years ago, the Bunya pine continued to grow in small defined areas of Australia. The Bunya pine is closely related to the Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), a native of South America. Nuts from both trees were an important food for indigenous tribes and the monkey puzzle nut is an important food source in Chile to the present day. Bunya pines are majestic trees towering above some rainforests in Queensland. The large green Bunya pine cones (football size) are hidden in the tree canopy. Mature trees at 12-15 years produce pine cones with crops being exceptionally good every 2-3 years. The mature cone weighs 5 – 10 kg and contains 30 – 100 nuts. The cones will fall from the tree when mature and should be harvested and frozen or processed within a week.
The wedge shaped nuts, when removed from the fleshy cone, are encased in a wooden shell. The nuts can easily be removed from wet cones. The nut is removed from the wooden shell in the home using secateurs or careful use of a strong sharp knife. They are easier to remove when hot after cooking in the shell. Nutritionally they are similar to chestnuts, being starchy, not oily. Each nut weighs about 15 grams and contains 130 kilojoules (32 calories) with more starch and protein than the average nut. The raw nuts have a dry crunchy texture and taste similar to a chestnut with overtones of pine. When boiled in their shell for 20-30 minutes the texture becomes waxy and can be easily sliced or pureed.
Traditionally the Australian Aboriginal people ate the nuts raw or roasted and they also buried the nuts in mud for some months to improve the flavour. Raw nuts, stored in their shells in the refrigerator in a sealed container for several months, have a much sweeter taste, probably similar to the nuts immersed in mud. Early white settlers (200 years ago) used to boil the nuts in the shells with their corned beef. Nuts were also kept in their shells in wet bags until sprouts formed in about a week. When the sprouts were about 5-10 cm long the sprouted nuts (still in the shells) were boiled for 20-30 minutes then removed from shells and served hot. Currently the nuts are eaten fresh, boiled or roasted in shell. Boiled nuts (whole, sliced or pureed) can be used in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. Dry cooking methods harden the flesh and make it inedible. Bunya wood is excellent for smoking meat or fish.
The Bunya pine occurs naturally in 2 areas in S.E. Queensland (mainly between Nambour and Gympie and west to the Bunya Mountains) plus a small area in North Queensland at Mt Lewis and Cunnabullen Falls. The nuts have poor dispersibility because animals digest the nuts and tubers, and the trees only spread by seeds falling near trees which occasionally grow into mature trees. Much of this historic area is now farmland with a few mature trees on many of the old farms. In 1908, 22,500 acres of land on the Bunya Mountains were reserved as a national park to protect the bunya trees from timber getters. The Bunya Mountains is considered a very sacred place with similar status to Uluru for the aborigines of S.E. Queensland.
Bunya nuts were highly prized by tribes of the Australian Aboriginal ethnicity who travelled up to 300 kilometres to the Bunya Mountains in the bunya season (January to March). Here they participated in ceremonies and feasted on the nuts. Many trees were owned by individual families who cut notches on the tree trunks to climb up to 40 metres to collect the pine cones in the crown of the tree. The tribes from the mountains shared the nuts with ocean dwelling tribes who reciprocated by providing seafood when visited by the mountain tribes. These ceremonies ceased with white settlement. Tom Petrie, the son of a free white settler, was the only white person to travel with 100 aborigines from Brisbane to one of these feasts. This is described in “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, published 1904. Currently Australian Aborigine people are keen to restart the bunya festivals.