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Thornless Native Raspberry Discovery A Game-Changer For Native Food Sector

ABC Rural / By Kim Honan

As a forager for more than 40 years, wild food researcher Peter Hardwick is no stranger to finding all sorts of uncultivated native foods in the bush.

Discovery Of Australian Native Raspberry

But it was his discovery of a thornless native raspberry seedling next to a car park five years ago, on Bundjalung Country in north-east NSW, that has the potential to be a game changer for the native food industry. 

“I grabbed a couple of suckers and took them home and one or two struck, and from that I’ve managed to propagate it, and I’ve grown it on and seen how it performs and here we are with a very nice specimen," he said.

"It's quite productive; it's juicy and it’s tasty. Having no thorns makes it approachable."

While native raspberries are a popular indigenous fruit, they have thorny stems and producers find them challenging to harvest.

"Usually these plants are very, very thorny ... They're recurved, and you’re lucky to get out of wild harvesting raspberries without a scratch," he said.

"So, to find a thornless one is fantastic because it means we can put this into backyards, schools, council parks and that sort of thing."

But it was a matter of wait and see if it was suitable for commercial production.

"It certainly has a characteristic ... but it needs to be trialled; it's a bit more involved before we get to that point," he said.

Newly Discovered Native Raspberries Being Grown At Daleys Nursery

Nursery propagating thornless seedlings for schools

Daniel Stewart at Daley's Fruit Tree Nursery in Kyogle has been propagating the raspberry variety over the last few months and is excited to be working with it.

"They are naturally very, very spiky and so getting to work with this, the first nursery doing it, is a kind of a privilege," he said.

"Being pricked and stung by many plants gets to you after a while, so this is a welcome relief."

There is a strong demand for native raspberries at the nursery and it regularly sells out of Rubus probus, commonly known as the Atherton raspberry.

"The native thornless Raspberry is definitely tastier and it's more of a compact bush, and much easier to work with and more backyard-friendly" he said.

Mr Stewart said he believed the Atherton was more productive and there would be a demand for it.

"They have their different climate niches, their different uses in the backyard or in the food forest," he said.

A freak of nature?

But how did the native plant turn up thornless? Mr Hardwick says it is a difficult question to answer.

"You get these random mutations in nature, and I guess that's one of the ways we’ve been able to get new varieties" he said.

"To find something that’s thornless is quite unusual, I don’t know what sort of number to put on it, it could be one in 10,000, it could be one in a million, but thornlessness is a very unusual characteristic in native raspberries just to pop up without plant breeding."

Bundjalung chef excited by potential of traditional food

When native raspberries are in season, Mindy Woods uses the 'bush lollies' in breakfast, dessert and cocktails at her restaurant Karkalla in Byron Bay.

"These are the most incredible vibrant, little delicious berries that you can ever imagine and to discover a variety that is thornless is super exciting," she said.

“It's quite a painful process harvesting native raspberries and the fact we can potentially now harvest them without the damage to our skin is going to be absolutely incredible."

The Bundjalung Widjabul Wia-bul woman said it will be a game-changer for the native food industry and its drive to make native foods more accessible. 

"We'll be able to propagate these, plant them in not just only homes but hopefully in the schools all around us to get kids connected with these amazing traditional foods is what it's all about," she said.

Protecting traditional rights

Ms Woods said it was an absolute necessity that the Bundjalung people be involved in any commercialisation of the thornless native raspberry.

"Our ancestors have looked after these incredible ingredients for generations, there's a lot of knowledge, they're connected not just with us through them being a food, but they're connected to our culture and the country," she said. 

"That connection is indispensable, so we really need to make sure that we’re acknowledging the history, the knowledge, and importance of these foods culturally so they can be respected moving forward."   

Mr Hardwick is keen to involve the traditional owners in any crop development. 

"I am very excited that discussions have begun on a potential collaboration with a Bundjalung based bush food enterprise with the thornless native raspberry," he said.

He said more protection is needed for traditional rights around native foods.

"These have become quite big enterprises and now we're getting foreign ownership of these companies and foreign ownership of Australian native resources, so a lot of questions need to be asked."