The desert quandong (Santalum acuminatum), also known as the native peach, is a shrub or small tree up to 4 m high with rough dark bark and light green, slightly leathery leave. It is native to arid and semi-arid Australia and grows in small groups. The flowers are small and greenish. The fruit is green, turning bright red when ripe, sometimes with touches of yellow. This plant is a root parasite, requiring what the local Aborigines call a “brother” (or host) tree, at least in its younger stages. Occurring in the southwestern third of Central Australia, it is usually found in sandy, grassy areas, often near waterways, salt lakes or hills. Fruits usually ripen in September or October, depending on rainfall. It is not fire tolerant and is heavily grazed, especially by camels.
The quandong has been a traditional staple food of central Australian Aborigines for many tens of thousands of years. The fleshy fruit, although sometimes a little tart, has a pleasant taste when ripe, similar to a cross between apricots, peaches and rhubarb. The fruit is highly nutritious, having a vitamin C content twice that of an orange. Dried fruit, collected from under the tree, are easily reconstituted in water. Excess fruits may be pounded and made into cakes to be dried and stored for later use. The relatively large pits are also highly nutritious, having a 25% protein and 70% oil content; however it would seem that there may be an element of toxicity to the seed, and so these are eaten only in extremely meager times. The seeds, when ground into a paste, are considered to be a powerful medicine, rubbed into the body as a treatment for general ailments. Quandong features in Aboriginal mythology and important “increase ceremonies” (to increase the season’s harvest) for the fruit are carried out.
The desert quandong is a single species with no sub-species or varieties. Some attempts have been made to produce trees with larger fruit, but this has been achieved through original tree selection, selective breeding and grafted cultivars. A 30-year scientific study concluded in 1999 has not resulted in any large commercial opportunities. There have been a number of attempts to grow the quandong as a commercial enterprise, but there does not appear to be any commercial enterprise that presents the fruit for sale to the general public. Quandong grows in the wild and is thus subject to the threats imposed by stock, both from cattle on the extremely large cattle stations that exist in the area and from wild camels, which abound in this region. However, the greatest threat arises from the continuing destruction of the Aboriginal culture and traditions. Quandong is fire intolerant, a fact well known within indigenous culture, and so their practice of “firestick farming” assisted the protection of the species. Such practices have now been largely abandoned, but have been replaced by indiscriminate destruction by massive wildfires. Low genetic variability in small, isolated stands may result in sexual reproductive failure if the species is self-incompatible