The yam daisy is a perennial herb with small edible tubers that grows in loose, disturbed soils throughout southeastern Australia. It has yellow, dandelion-like flowers that nod before opening and are borne on leafless stalks, up to 40 centimeters high, that grow from a rosette of basal leaves. The leaves are lanceolate or oblanceolate with smooth, lobed, or toothed margins, and grow to about 30 centimeters long and 1.5 centimeters wide. The tubers, eaten both raw and cooked, are crisp and flavorful, easy to digest, and several times more energy dense than potatoes.
The yam daisy was an important staple food for Aborigines of southeastern Australia, including the Wathaurong and Yuin peoples, who grew it in vast, well-tilled fields. The tubers, growing just below the soil surface, are easy to harvest, and Aborigines collected great quantities with ease. Traditionally, the yams were often collected in rush baskets that were then placed in pit ovens for slow cooking.
A number of scientific names have been applied to the yam daisy, including Microseris scapigera and M. lanceolata. Recent taxonomic research reveals that the correct name for the species most often cultivated in pre-colonial times is M. walteri. These three species vary slightly in terms of habitat, morphology, and the size, texture, and flavor of their tubers, but have all been grown for food. Native names for the yam daisy include murnong and nyamin.
Early explorers observed yam daisy fields that stretched to the horizon, but a few years after colonization these fields had almost completely disappeared due to the introduction of livestock and the abandonment of traditional fire regimes. Sheep compacted the soil and ate the leaves and tubers, and the exclusion of controlled burning, an integral practice in Aboriginal land management, meant that carbon was no longer recycled into the soil, and that the yam daisy’s competitors could multiply unchecked. Today, synthetic fertilizers continue to have an adverse effect on the yam daisy.
Thankfully, researches and farmers have finally recognized the importance and potential of this plant, which Aboriginal Australians have always known to be a superior food. It is now being cultivated on a small scale.