Old man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) is a multi-stemmed, woody shrub that grows in arid and semi-arid lowlands across much of continental Australia. It is a fast-growing evergreen that typically reaches a maximum size of 3 meters high by 4 meters wide. Its leaves are elliptical to round, silvery-gray, and 1-3 centimeters long. Flowering season is variable, but usually takes place between June and August, with the seeds maturing shortly thereafter. An extremely hardy species, old man saltbush is tolerant of flooding (in fact, it thrives in alluvial plains), drought, fire, light frost, and highly alkaline and saline soils—indeed, their ability to grow in saline environments and to store salt and other minerals in their leaves are what give all of the saltbush species their common name.
Together, these traits make old man saltbush a valuable species both agriculturally and ecologically: In addition to providing food (including vitamins, protein, and minerals) to livestock in marginal environments, old man saltbush is important for combatting erosion and salinity, and as a windbreak. It is also one of the first species to regenerate after fire, making it a crucial food source for both wild and domestic animals in the period following burns. Finally, due to its multi-tiered root system, which is both wide and deep, old man saltbush is able to efficiently gather not only surface water, but also nutrients found deeper in the soil, out of reach of many other plant species. These nutrients are then returned to the surface in the droppings of grazers, where they become available to other plants.
Though its ecological importance and commercial and environmental applications are broadly recognized and much researched, what is less well known about old man saltbush is its importance in Australian aboriginal cultures.
For thousands of years, Native Australians have used this plant in a variety of ways. The seeds, which are tiny but extremely plentiful, are prepared in various forms, including as flour for damper bread. The salty leaves are used both fresh and dried, either as a vegetable or as an herb to season meat or fish, and have medicinal value as a topical treatment for cuts or skin irritation. In addition to its culinary importance, old man saltbush is also traditionally valued as a source of fuel wood. Hunters recognize it as a good place to find game animals, which use it for cover.
Even though old man saltbush is abundant across its range, it should always be harvested responsibly, so as to ensure a year-round supply for both humans and animals.