Plum pickings: ancient fruit ripe for modern plates

31 May 2020

An Indigenous fruit which is one of the earliest known plant foods eaten in Australia could be the next big thing in the bush foods industry.

The University of Queensland research team is led by bush foods researcher Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, who said the green plum not only tasted delicious but contained one of the highest known folate levels of any fruit on the commercial market.

“This is really exciting because folate is an important B-group vitamin, and what’s great about the green plum is that the folate is in a natural form so the body absorbs it more easily than in a capsule,” Dr Sultanbawa said.

Folate performs many functions in the body, including helping cells work and tissues grow, and is regarded as essential for the healthy development of the foetus during pregnancy.

 Prof Yasmina Sultanbawa with green plum in East Arnhem Land.

Her team is undertaking the world’s first detailed study of the nutritional characteristics of the green plum (Buchanania obovata).

“The green plum is sometimes called ‘wild mango’, and grows abundantly across the far north of Australia,” Prof Sultanbawa said.

“There is recent evidence discovered in West Arnhem Land which shows the green plum was eaten by Aboriginal people as far back as 53,000 years ago.”

Prof Yasmina Sultanbawa and Kevin Wanambi, Gulkula Mining Company Pty Ltd. 
Kevin Wanambi, Selina Fyfe UQ and Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin.

With funding from the Australian Research Council’s Industrial Transformation Training Centre’s program for Uniquely Australian Food, Prof Sultanbawa is working with Aboriginal communities in East Arnhem Land and Delye Outstation in the Northern Territory, to research the green plum.

Ms Selina Fyfe, a food scientist who is undertaking a PhD on the green plum, says the sensory qualities of the green plum are outstanding.

“It’s probably one of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted – it’s very sweet, a bit like stewed fruit,” Ms Fyfe said.

“The research has already found the green plum’s flesh is high in protein, dietary fibre, folate, potassium and is a good source of magnesium, calcium and phosphorous.”

The seed of the green plum is also rich in dietary fibre, iron and vitamin B9.

The green plum belongs to the family Anacardiaceae which contains well-known commercialised fruit including mango, cashew apple and pistachio nuts.

“The green plum is a sweet fruit that consistently rates highly in the consumer taste tests we’ve run in Brisbane and could one day be as popular as table grapes,” Prof Sultanbawa said.

Young green plum plant. 

“A lot of people don’t know about the green plum, even within the bush foods industry.

“This is a wild-harvested, seasonal fruit that typically ripens after the first rains of the wet season in late November/early December.”

The fruit is eaten raw from the tree or as dried fruit, and the plum’s flesh and seed can also be mashed into an edible paste.

Prof Sultanbawa said the green plum was traditionally used as food and medicine in Aboriginal communities across the Top End of Australia and was very popular with the children and elderly.

 “The green plum has so much goodness, it could one day help with dietary issues like the triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies – known as hidden hunger,” Prof Sultanbawa said.

“Our collaborators at the Aboriginal-owned Gulkula nursery in Gove, East Arnhem Land, have recently successfully propagated the green plum – and we believe this is the first time the plum has been propagated anywhere in the world.

Gulkula nursery; East Arnhem Land, NT.
L-R Selina Fyfe, Kevin Wanambi and Yasmina Sultanbawa.

“The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation for the first time did a trial harvest of the green plum this year.”

The UQ team, which includes A/Prof Heather Smyth, Dr Michael Netzel and Dr Horst Schirra, is working with Professor Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin from the Technical University of Munich and the Helmholtz Zentrum München and Professor Michael Rychlik from the Technical University of Munich in Germany to uncover the green plum’s chemistry, and its acids and sugars, to provide a more detailed nutritional profile of the fruit.

“Once we get the scientific evidence about its nutritional value, chemical composition, the different maturity stages, and the best time to harvest, we can then work with the communities to get it into the market as a commercial product.”

Prof Sultanbawa said legal and social science researchers, and other partners in the ARC Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods, would work with Indigenous communities to undertake enrichment planting and develop enterprises that ensure Indigenous community ownership and control.

This research is supported by Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, Gulkula Mining Corporation, Dhimurru Rangers, Mata Mata Homelands, Wild Orchard Kakadu plum Pty Ltd and funding from the Australian Research Council, The University of Queensland, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Australian Native Food and Botanicals, the Kindred Spirits Foundation, Karen Sheldon Catering, Beeinventive Pty. Ltd., and Venus Shell Systems Pty. Ltd.

Explore more of this story 'Plum pickings: An ancient fruit promises a new food industry for Australia' by viewing this interactive online story here. 


Contact: Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, The University of Queensland E:, M: +61 455 934 640 or A/Prof Heather Smyth, Senior Research Fellow, QAAFI, The University of Queensland, T. 07 344 32469, M: 0468 732 394 E. 

Media enquiries and photo requests: Margaret Puls, QAAFI Communications, E: M: 0419 578 356.
Photos for media are available for download from dropbox. All photos in this story may be reproduced with an acknowledgement: © Margaret Puls, The University of Queensland.  Top banner image caption: Drone image of UQ researchers with Gulkula nursery and mine staff inspect a green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. (Drone and film footage by Matthew Taylor © UQ). 

Related articles: 
Native green plums from Arnhem Land found to have significant health benefits, commercial appeal - ABC online news article by Halina Backowski on 31 May 2020.
Plum delicious: Delicious and nutritious bush foods - (video file 8 minutes and 50 seconds) ABC TV Landline story by Halina Backowski on 31 May 2020. 
An ancient fruit promises a new food industry system for Australia's native bush foods - UQ media release on 31 May 2020.
Plum pickings: An ancient fruit promises a new food industry for Australia, UQ research impact feature article by Margaret Puls on 31 May 2020.
UQ is researching the benefits of the native green plum. (audio file start 1:40 end 15:12) ABC Country Hour NT radio presenter Matt Brann on 1 June 2020. 
Research teams are working with Indigenous communities about bush foods (audio file start 3:40 end 4:20) 2GB National Rural News by Eddie Summerfield on 2 June 2020.
How our indigenous communities revived ancient 'superfood' - InQueensland article by Brad Cooper on 2 June 2020.
‘Wild mango’, one of the earliest-known plant foods eaten in Australia, next big thing - Australian Geographic by Angela Heathcote on 2 June 2020. 
Australia's native food is incredibly nutritious - natural foods provide health - Dietary Science Foundation Sweden by Ann Fernholm on 22 June 2020. 'Undiscovered treasure: Indigenous Australian green plum strong candidate for commercialisation - Food Navigator - Asia 9 July 2020   

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a research institute at The University of Queensland supported by the Queensland Government via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.