The Bunya Pine - A Strange and Useful Plant
What is a Bunya Pine?
The bunya pine, or Araucaria bidwillii, is famous for its huge cones and its delicious seeds. It's a relative of the monkey puzzle tree or Chilean pine. Like its relative, the bunya pine is an evergreen conifer and has an unusual branching pattern, strange leaves and edible seeds inside a large cone. Even the smaller cones of a bunya pine are the size of a bowling ball. Some can be as large as a person's head, or even bigger. It's dangerous to be under a bunya pine when it's dropping its cones!
The bunya pine is native to Queensland in northeastern Australia and belongs to the family Araucariaceae. The family was widespread in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Its members existed in both the northern and southern hemisphere and coexisted with dinosaurs. Today the family is restricted to the southern hemisphere, except for cultivated specimens, but its members still have unique features that are sometimes described as "reptilian".
The bunya pine grows slowly and lives for a long time - perhaps for five hundred years or more. There is a lot that is still unknown about the plant, however. The tree grows in the wild and is also used as an ornamental plant.
The Unusual Trunk and Branches of a Bunya Pine Tree
A bunya pine tree may reach a height of 45 meters (almost 148 feet) and a diameter of 1.5 meters. (a little over 4 feet). The thick and sturdy trunk is very straight and has a horizontally furrowed bark. It's often said to resemble the leg of an elephant or a dinosaur in appearance.
The branches of the bunya pine are arranged around the trunk in whorls. The immature tree is shaped like a pyramid. As the tree matures, it loses some of its lower branches and develops a dome-shaped crown at the upper part of the trunk.
After the lower branches drop, shorter whorls of branches often develop from dormant buds below the domed crown. This sometimes gives the tree a two-tiered appearance.
The branches of a bunya pine have a strange appearance. They are bare except for a dense tuft of small branches at their tips, which bear spiky leaves.
The Leaves of a Bunya Pine
Like the trunk and branches, the leaves of the bunya pine are unusual. The tree's leaves are arranged in multiple rows that overlap and completely surround a branch. The leaves are stiff and pointed. The prickly points can be very painful when they jab into the skin. On younger branches the leaves are arranged in two rows instead of multiple rows.
The leaves of a bunya pine resemble those of a monkey puzzle tree but aren't identical. The leaves of the monkey puzzle tree are roughly triangular in shape with a pointed tip and a wide base. Those of the bunya pine have a pointed tip and a tapered base. The monkey puzzle tree is also an unusual plant and belongs to the same family as the bunya pine.
Based on its name, we might assume that the bunya pine is a type of pine tree. This isn't the case, however. Both the bunya pine and the monkey puzzle tree belong to the family Araucariaceae. Pine trees belong to the family Pinaceae. Both families belong to the order Pinales, so they are distant relatives.
Bunya Pine Cones
The bunya pine produces a high quality wood. This wood is useful for making furniture and for constructing musical instruments such as acoustic guitars. For many people, though, the value of the bunya pine depends on its cones and seeds.
A tree bearing mature female cones is potentially very dangerous. The cones weigh ten to fifteen pounds, or sometimes even more. They are often said to resemble dark green pineapples. Bunya pine cones are generally larger and heavier than pineapples, however, and they have the added danger of falling to the ground from a height.
Unlike the female cones, the male cones (which produce the pollen grains) are long and slender. They have a much smaller mass than the female cones.
Some public gardens that contain bunya pines barricade the area around the trees when the female cones are dropping, since a blow from a cone could be deadly for visitors.
The Nuts and Seeds of a Bunya Pine Cone
The cone of a bunya pine contains fifty to a hundred and fifty "nuts", although these don't have the same structure as the nuts of a flowering plant. Each nut is enclosed by a thin covering of tissue, or husk, which can be easily removed. Once this is done, the seed coat or shell of the nut must be opened with a nutcracker or hammer to reveal the large and very tasty seed inside.
I've never tasted a bunya pine seed, but it reportedly has a delicious, nutty flavour. The seeds can be eaten raw but are often boiled - sometimes in brine - or roasted. They are also steamed, fried and baked. The roasted seeds taste like chestnuts. The seeds are high in carbohydrates and low in fat.
A tree doesn't produce seeds until it's fourteen to twenty years old. Bunya pine seeds generally take a long time to produce a shoot. The shoot may not appear until several months to well over a year after a seed is planted.
Collecting and Extracting Bunya Pine Seeds
Bunya Pine Nuts - Bushfood or Bush Tucker
Bunya pine nuts are a wonderful food resource which often goes unused. However, a growing number of people are becoming interested in the nuts as bushfood, which is also known as bush tucker. Bushfood was originally collected or hunted in the wild by the indigenous people of Australia. Collecting bushfood is a similar idea to the process of foraging in the wild areas of North America.
When nuts are available, they're sold at roadside stands in some parts of Australia. Bunya pine nuts (or more accurately the seed inside the nuts) can either be eaten whole or ground to make a flour or paste. The flour is used to make pancakes, breads, cakes and other baked products.
Roasting and Shelling Bunya Nuts Outdoors
Bunya Pine Nuts and the Indigenous People of Australia
The aboriginal people of Australia once considered bunya pines to be sacred plants. The trees were so important to their culture that cutting one down was illegal according to their laws.
Every three years, when the yield of nuts peaked, huge numbers of indigenous people would gather to celebrate the harvest and feast on the nuts. They cooked the nuts or stored them underground to improve their flavour.
The gathering was also used for socialization between different groups and for important events, such as trading and the arrangement of marriages. Tribal differences were temporarily set aside during the celebration.
In recent years, an annual festival known as Bunya Dreaming has been held in Australia. The festival is a celebration of all things bunya and is held in memory of older festivals. Many different foods made from bunya nuts are on display. There are also bunya art displays, cone gathering, husking and weight-guessing competitions and music and story telling performances. The Bunya Dreaming festival has great importance to the indigenous people of Australia.
A Tribute to the Bunya Pine, or Bunya Bunya
Bunya Pines as Ornamental Plants
The bunya pine is an interesting and fun tree to grow as an ornamental plant and as a source of food. Since the tree grows slowly, it's sometimes used as an indoor plant. The tree eventually needs to be planted outdoors, however.
Since germination can take so long, some people prefer to buy a bunya pine as a seedling rather than as a seed. There is a special joy in seeing a seed germinate, but this joy may be postponed for a long time when someone plants a bunya pine seed.
The bunya pine prefers full sun but tolerates some cold. It needs to be watered regularly, but the soil in which it's growing must be well drained. The location for a bunya pine needs to be considered very carefully, since it will grow very tall and could eventually produce heavy and potentially dangerous cones. The cones fall in July in the northern hemisphere and in January in the southern hemisphere. The area around a tree needs to be protected so that the cones don't damage property or injure people as they drop. Still, even though precautions are necessary, growing and observing the unusual bunya pine are enjoyable activities.
The Bunya Pine - A Tree Profile for Gardeners
© 2014 Linda Crampton
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