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Issue Number #33
Issue Date Spring 2005
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Title Gandering at the Goosefoots
Author Phil Watson

The diverse and intriguing common names of Saltbushes, Bluebushes, Crumble weeds, Beetroot, Quinoa and Sugar beet provide motivation enough to explore the attributes of the 100 odd genera and 1500 species making up the Goosefoot family.

Characteristic of most family members are their goose-foot shaped leaves. This feature was the reason for the Greek words cheno & podium (Greek for goose & foot) being merged together to form the family's name of Chenopodiaceae.

Although many well known Saltbushes and Bluebushes have superior drought and salt tolerance, such as the small, water friendly, rambler called Climbing Saltbush Einadia nutans and the woolly Short-leaf Bluebush, Maireana brevifolia, unfortunately the Chenopods contains many invasive weeds including the invasive Fathen Chenopodium album.

On the positive side, Sugar Beet Beta vulgaris altissima is the key source of the world's sugar supplies, whilst Beetroot, English Spinach and Quinoa are heralded by various civilisations as traditional staple foods. The family also contributes to the flower garden through the spectacular crimson leaved, Ornamental Blue Bush Kochia scoparia trichophylla, whilst many medicinal and herbal remedies are extracted from the family's herbs such as the Crested Goosefoot C. cristatum (poultices heal skin infections) and Pigweed C. album (leaves chewed for toothache).

Chenopods Are a Gardeners' Ideal Plant

Most of the 300 Australian herbaceous or shrubby species (15 Tasmanian species) flourish in saline locations within salt marshes (halophytes) or in dry arid plant communities. These tough survivors are some of the most water friendly garden plants available and once established thrive on neglect. A word of warning however! Their tasty leaves should be permanently protected from browsing rabbits, potoroos, wallabies etc, whilst their wind borne pollen has a reputation as one in coastal revegetation projects, they should be classed as 'over successful natives. To restrict their invasive potential they need to be drastically pruned twice a year.

Glassworts Form the Salt Marsh's Framework

The Glassworts function as framework species within non-forest communities such as the valuable Salt Marshes. These communities are typically located adjacent to the sporadically inundated high tide levels of intertidal mudflats. They have adapted to survive periods of inundation by concentrating the saline water into their bladder-like stems, turning them pink then red. When the red colouration deepens, their stems drop relieving the plant of their salty burden.

The Glassworts are also key plants in the salt marsh's food web. They sustain the diverse populations of invertebrates and molluscs that are seen to be harvested by the long prying beaks of the many migratory waders such as the Oyster catchers, Red-necked Stints, Hooded Plovers etc. For example the Lauderdale Saltmarsh and the Ramsar listed Pittwater Saltmarsh have extensive Glasswort communities supporting key Migratory Bird habitats. Many of these communities have been subjected to a long history of degradation from landfill, development and extensive grazing pressures. However there roles and values are now appreciated following recent public awareness and formal reservation and/or recognition via Ramsar or other International Migratory Birds agreements such as JAMBA and CAMBA.

Mutual Benefits for Rare Birds and Butterflies

The Beaded Glasswort Sarcocornia quinqueflora (Sarco Latin for 'fleshy' cornia Latin for horns which aptly describes their flowering heads), the Thick Headed Glasswort S. blackiana and the Fleshy Seablite Suaeda australis provide a crucial food source for the endangered Orange Bellied Parrot. During winter the birds can be observed feasting on these fleshy leaves at sites on the Central Victorian coast, Northern Tasmanian Coast and Western Bass Strait Islands.

The attractive Chequered Blue Butterflies are dependent on the Saltbush Rhagodia candolleana. They lay their flattened pale green eggs singularly on the flower heads. Once hatching has occurred, the larva munch veraciously on their succulent leaves. By mimicing the leave's colour and texture, they remain protected from bird predation.

People's Plants

It is not surprising that the aborigines and colonists enjoyed a variety of bush tucker treats supplied by the Chenopods when one considers that during the Inca period vast armies were sustained on the Chenopod, Quinoa Chenopodium quinoa. Known as the "Mothergrain", Quinoa has proven nutritionally far superior to all cereals and milk. It contains up to 18% complete protein and has an ideal blend of poly & mono-saturated fats. Although available today in health food shops, users often forget to pre rinse the bitter saponins out of the grain prior to cooking. Interestingly the Incas used the rinsings as an antiseptic or as a detergent to foam water by the action of reducing its surface tension.

Once the early colonists had realised that native plants eaten by aboriginals were safe for them to try, Chenopods became a very popular bush tucker. The Chenopods require boiling to remove their saltiness before savouring as delicious greens. Commonly eaten were the Marsh Saltbush Atriplex paludosa and the Climbing Saltbush, whilst Fleshy Seablite gained a reputation as a pickle. Scurvy was avoided by early mariners by harvesting and cooking Bearded Glassworts.

Interestingly, recent irrigation trials with saline water have opened up a potential green food supply in South Africa, with excellent growth rates being achieved from Bearded Glasswort crops.

A word of caution! As a green, these plants should be enjoyed in moderation. Like their relative Spinach Spinacia oleracea, they contain oxalates, which may cause digestive discomfort. However, the toxicity of oxalates is diminished by boiling and/or by serving them with foods rich in Calcium. Delicious creamy sauces or spinach kirsches are ideal options!

The seeds of Grey Saltbush, like many of the Chenopods, were valued for grinding into a meal for baking as flat bread. Alternatively, a' lye' (alkaline substance) was formed from the white ashes of burnt Saltbush foliage. An excellent home-made soap was formed by mixing the lye with mutton fat and perfuming this gelatinous mix with favourites from the colonist's cottage garden (lavender, roses), before allowing it to dry.

Medicinal Herbs

The glycoside Saponin as an active ingredient in Spinach and other Chenopods aids the digestion by improving the absorption of minerals such as Calcium and Silicon, thereby correcting nutrient deficiencies.

Chenopods cooked as greens also have a mild laxative effect, whilst providing a good source of Vitamins A and C. The crushed leaves of Chenopodium album have proven valuable in poultices applied to burns, swellings and wounds. They were also chewed uncooked to relieve toothache, whilst medicinal teas have gained a reputation for healing mouth ulcers. Wormseed oil extracted from C. ambrosioides is considered one of the most toxic of all essential oils. It was used as an anthelmintic (intestinal worm killer), but its toxicity limited this application.

In Summary

Although the Goosefoots contains many people's plants, highlighted by the culinary delights of beetroot, spinach and quinoa, they deserve greater recognition for their unheralded ecosystem service role in supporting the filtering and habitat values of the exquisitely complex salt marsh communities.


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