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Chapter XIV. Something to Eat.

HORACE got many a bit of information as to plants from an amateur in botany, long resident in the island.

One morning the young man started the conversation.

‘Really, Mr Smith, I could not have believed that a country so rich as yours in plants should be so ill provided with any fit as food for man.’

‘Before taking up that question, I should like to know whether your ancestors, who dwelt in Caledonia before Cæsar came, found so many native fruits.’

‘No; I rather think those were no great shakes. I don't despise the cranberry, but object to the wild crab.’

‘Then don't crow over Tasmania. But there is still something to be said upon our supply. Let us see. You will admit that the Aborigines may have found vegetable food here.’

‘Certainly. I do not dislike the native cherry, though it is rather too sweet; but the Tasmanian wild cranberry is inferior to the British one.’

‘But have you tasted the native bread?’

‘What is that?’

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‘The Mylitta is a tuber in the ground, often as big as a man's head. Dug up near rotten trees, its flavour is not admired by us, though something like boiled rice. Aborigines ate it eagerly. There is another excellent fungus found growing on the branches of the myrtle tree westward. When the skin is peeled off, one might fancy, at a meal, that he was eating cold cowheel.’

‘Not a highly spiced substance then. But there are mushrooms, I know, and just like the English sort. But what fern is that the natives indulged in?’

‘The edible fern is the Tara, and very similar to the common brake of British woods. The root when ripe is as long as the finger. Our blacks would roast it in the hot ashes, drag off the black peeling with their bright teeth, and devour it with their roast Kangaroo and Opossum.’

‘I am aware that pigs root about the fern; but is there any quantity of fecula, or arrowroot material, in it?’

‘If you will grate a root, or beat it well, and then mix with water, you will get the nourishing precipitate. As to the Tree-fern heart, I never knew our people take to it. The wild man split open the top, and roasted the heart, a sort of turnip substance, several inches thick. There is, also, a nutty substance obtained from the base of some sedgy leaves.’

‘When thirsty in the bush,’ said Horace, ‘I have gladly chewed the queer branchlets of the leafless She Oak. The cattle like a munch at them too. But now

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for a description of your Tasmanian fruits. I will leave out the catalogue of what are called the English ones, in the culture of which you manage to get a flavour that the mother country could prefer to that of its own varieties.’

‘Our native fruits, like our vegetables, have no great reputation. But while Sir John Franklin, to save starvation when wind-bound in Macquarie Harbour, was well content to take some wild cabbage, other Bush-bound heroes have not been ungrateful for kangaroo apples.

‘Please describe this aboriginal apple.’

‘The shrub sometimes grows nearly as high as a man. The apple follows the birth of a blue flower. As the fruit ripens the skin bursts. It has a mealy taste, and is somewhat acid, though perfectly wholesome. Our own youngsters go in for the same.’

‘What are the Botany Bay greens?’

‘These were eaten in a terrible famine at Port Jackson in the days of the first settlement. We have the same plant here. It belongs to the goosefoot family. The Colonial housekeepers still pickle the young shoots.’

‘Your Macquarie Harbour vine is now so common as a climber in Hobart Town, that I have often admired its rapidity of growth, and the bright green of its ivy-like leaf. But what of the fruit?

‘This hangs in a bunch, and has a sweet taste, though its triangular seed is unpleasant enough. The

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convicts were often glad enough to gather it for pies and puddings, and we sometimes make a jam out of it.’

‘Indeed! when the Island abounds with such delicious raspberries. I pity your taste. Is the cherrytree common?’

‘It is not found universally through the Island, being scarce to the north-west. It always needs the shade of a larger forest tree. This exocarpus is like the she-oak, you know, in having no leaves, but a sort of knotted branchlets or branches, with a slight green fringe at each knot.

‘I know the fruit is of an oval shape, the size of a large currant, of a sweet taste, and attached to a nut, instead of having it inside.’

‘We have a variety of currant-like fruits, but of an acid flavour. Children are sometimes drawn to a taste by the pretty-looking currants. The epacris family, including the native cranberry, yield so much seed to the thin pulp that the fruit is not worth the gathering. The juniper sort of trailing plant, on which the cranberry grows, bears lovely scarlet blossoms in winter. The ordinary native currant is a leucopogon. The species is named after the French naturalist M. Riche. When here with D'Entrecasteaux, in 1792, he was lost in the Bush for three days, and supported life on these berries. They are observed near the coast, small and white, hanging from a scrub five or six feet high.’

‘When I was scrambling about the breast of Mount

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Wellington, I gathered some of the heath wax clusters. I found the little white wax-like fruit taste something after the fashion of a young gooseberry. But your tea plants amused me.’

‘And yet the old Colonists were glad enough to try a brew of the leaves, when the Chinese quality was a guinea to two guineas a pound. The burr, whose seeds so unpleasantly fasten on to the ladies' dresses when going near them, has a leaf which is no bad substitute for tea. The melaleuca and leptospermum are colonial tea plants. There is a correa called the Cape Barren tea.’

‘What part of the grass-tree did the Blacks eat?’

‘The xanthorrhœa, which throws up so lofty a flower-stalk, and which is a safe indication of bad land, is a coarse grass. The waddy was used to knock off the stiff leaves from the trunk. At the base of the fresh inner leaves was a tender morsel joining on to the stem. Our boys will sometimes get this and roast it. The roasted native yam was always welcome to Whites or Blacks.’

‘But is there not a native potato, which is not a berry but a root?’

‘There is. It is the gastrodia, growing at the decaying roots of the stringy bark. Though without leaves, its brown flowers mount up to a couple of feet. The bulb tubers below grow out of one another, like kidney potatoes, which they resemble in size and form. The nourishment is drawn directly from the

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decaying roots of the tree. When roasted, these native potatoes taste like beetroot.’

‘You have spoken of tea-plants, but never named the lovely sassafras, a decoction of the bark of which was once recommended to me.’

‘Yes, that magnificent laurel, our sassafras, the atherosperma, will often run up 150 feet, growing like a pine. When the decoction is flavoured with milk it becomes no unsatisfactory drink. We have a sort of Peruvian bark in our forests. The coprosma, or native holly, grows half-a-dozen feet high. But the red or purple berries are sweet and wholesome, and have a couple of seeds in each, somewhat like coffee-leaves. There is a taller species, forming a dense underwood in gullies, whose red peas, as they are called, were greedily picked for puddings in older days. But in eating the fruit one's mouth gets full of seeds.’

‘What is the native carrot?’

‘The root of a pretty geranium. It is fleshy, and when roasted is not objectionable, though far from equal to our English carrot. The native apple-berry is quite respectable, though plagued with a lot of hard seeds. The cylindrical fruit is green in colour. The plant is a pittosporum.’

‘Have you no edible peas?’

‘No—although, exclusive of acacias, we have no less than sixty species. The Blacks would occasionally roast some sorts of acacia seeds. There is a rose, our common

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bramble, which bears a capital fruit, though the common trouble of big, hard stones has to be encountered. A yellow-flowering, creeping bramble, to the north, has really a delicious cranberry-like red fruit.’

‘Your pig-faces amused me.’

‘That is the mesembryanthemum, a sort of figmarigold, by the sea-side everywhere. The fleshy seedvessel of this low-spreading plant may be sucked to great advantage by the thirsty tourist. Children are very fond of the pulp. The fruit is an inch or two inches long, and of a reddish colour when ripe. The native elder has a white sweet fruit. The tree is an annual, two or three feet high.’

Horace had been previously attracted by the sweets of manna at the Hobart Town Regatta.

This sugar of the wilderness is so minutely described by Moses as to be easily recognized anywhere. In Tasmania and Australia it is abundantly found; though, like the Israelites, we have to be quick in picking up the droppings there, or the sun would absorb them.

Under a dwarf sort of gum-tree the children expect to light upon the sweets. The pretty snow white drops soon crystallize, and soon evaporate. Manna is very pleasant to the taste, and is nutritious as a food. The constituents are chiefly gum, sugar, and a substance called mannite.

Many trees discharge this honey-dew. In one hot summer the Linden trees of Strasburg were observed to throw down a small rain of the honey dew. But

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the manna is not a mere exudation of juices, but a product of insects.

Though many tiny creatures find it their interest to erect a sort of tent for protection against wet and foes, which they manufacture from certain secretions, the colonial Psylla has a greater quantity of gummy pabulum than its kindred the other side of the Line. The cloak of white filaments comes from its own body. These comical little cone-tents of the larvæ and pupæ of this insect are seen hanging from the under branches of the bushes. When they drop they are eagerly snapped up by the youngsters.

The eggs are in clusters of yellow grains, and uncovered. As the egg bursts, the larva appears. It is far from handsome, though nearly transparent. It seems bristling all round with filaments from its body. A thread issues like a tail and ends in a round lump. The white fluid can be detected at every articulation of the almost microscopic creature.

When proceeding to form its dwelling, it throws out from a centre fibrous radii, like the spokes of a wheel, and proceeds, after the style of the spider, to fill up the interstices with finer threads of its glutinous material. The cup tent is very thin.

The honey secreted oozes out in drops, and hardens while it raises the roof on the wall. The insect, when it has devoured enough to complete its transformation, eats through its sugar house, and leaves its skin at home.

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The perfect insect has ten joints in its antennæ. Its so-called sucker enables it to pierce the leaf for juices. The eyes are very large and round, having an ocellus behind each, though occasionally a third ocellus may be distinguished, if it be not simply the union of the the two others. The wings are particularly elongated and without colour. The elytra are longer than the wings. The abdomen is green, and has two points at the extremity for the discharge of eggs. The feet have a couple of hooks and a bladder. The male, though smaller than its mate, is similar in appearance. The animal indulges more in leaping than walking.

In examining these pretty cup-coverings, tufts of hair, like extensions of the thread of the insect, are presented. It is said that the saccharine matter of the manna is confined to these hairs.

One species of colonial Psylla builds on the red curled leaves at the ends of fresh shoots and protects itself with the lerp, which is waxy and tasteless. The insect is much larger than the cone maker; the head is yellow, the abdomen is green, and the elytra are yellow.

A third sort lays dark red eggs. The larva is a reddish brown colour. The form of its covering resembles the valve of a cockle-shell. The hinge is fastened to the leaf. The Lerp is bright in colour and quite translucent; the outside is often half an inch wide. All the threads appear to spring from the point of security on the leaf. The fine hairs cross in all directions,

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producing a marvellously beautiful specimen of animal lace. It is a brilliant carpet covering. Both in the pupa and perfect state, this insect is quite double the size of that making the delicious white lerp. Its head and thorax are highly coloured, though the abdomen is green. The delicate and regular nervures of the elytra are bright scarlet in colour.

Underneath these limpet-like appendages to the leaves a reservoir of honey is deposited by the insect.

Some people have doubted whether all sorts of manna are thus produced by the incision of an insect. One colonial kind, from the Mallèe scrub, a sort of dwarf Eucalyptus, has a lerp which is pronounced by natives to be only an exudation from the young Mallèe. Entomologists doubt the truth of this, and suppose the existence of a new genus of insects.

This manna differs from the other chiefly in being partly insoluble in either water, spirit, or acid. Moreover it contains no true mannite. One kind is thus described by a settler:—

“I had no dinner, but I got plenty of lerp. Lerp is very sweet, and is formed by an insect on the leaves of gumleaves; in size and appearance like a flake of snow, it feels like matted wool, and tastes like the ice on a wedding cake.”

But this new sort consists of tiny cups, six to an inch, covered with the usual white curled hairs. The outside is rough, but the inside smooth. Each hair is a tube, and contains starch as well as sugar. Only the

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hairs taste sweet; the other part is like gum to the palate. The point of attachment is not observable, and this has given rise to the opinion that it is not the product of insects. Half the weight of the substance is sugar, and one-sixth water. The remainder is classed as gum one-sixteenth part, starch nearly as much, inulin one-seventh, and cellulose about an eighth.