If you’re from southern Queensland or northern NSW then chances are you’ve grown up with macadamias.
As Bauple, bopple, Baphal, bush or Queensland nut, macadamias, like thongs, cricket or the beach, have been part of growing up, an endearing childhood friend that, literally, never left the backyard.
If we’ve moved on, and the world is a faster, shinier place, then so has our childhood snack. We sometimes catch sight of it in glossy magazines or top-billing in foodie restaurants, moving in the finest of circles; and if we should stop to think, it’s with a bemused smile and the satisfaction that we enjoyed them before they became “World’s Best Nut” – who’d have thought!
But how well do we really know the macadamia? Perhaps one of the most startling things to learn is that their last common ancestor with other tree nuts lived over 100 million years ago.
Macadamias did not begin their journey from anyone’s backyard, but rather from a land so distant, so old and strange that we would not recognize it as Australia.
As the very first flowering plants appeared and diversified, the super continent of Gondwana started to split apart. Dinosaurs came and went and the macadamia’s ancestors evolved from the ancient family of plants that we now call Proteaceae. Volcanoes alternately ripped apart the forest and then nurtured it with fertile soils, while temperatures and sea levels rose and fell with each ice age. By 50 million years ago macadamias were part of vast Australian rainforests that expanded and contracted, evolved and endured. Fossilised macadamia pollen has been found in the soil from diverse places along much of the east coast of Australia and fossilised leaves have been found in New Zealand.
Our friend the macadamia is a stoic and ancient time traveller, moulded by time and monumental circumstance.
As the continent moved north, Australia became drier and hotter, and the world’s oldest rainforests retreated to the wet coastal fringes. The First Peoples of Australia were probably delighted to find such a wonderful food but by then, macadamias were already an ancient and contracting species. Today nine macadamia-like species survive, five in wet tropical rainforests (these are now classified as Lasjia – three grow in north Queensland and two in Indonesia) and four macadamias: Macadamia tetraphylla in northern NSW, M. integrifolia from the Gold Coast to Maryborough, M. ternifolia from Brisbane to Gympie and the rarest of all, M. jansenii at a single site near Miriam Vale.
Our friend, the macadamia, is certainly not what it seems, a brash, Johnny-come-lately ocker but might be better described as a stoic and ancient time traveller, moulded by time and monumental circumstance. The macadamia is a tough nut in more ways than one but for all that it was the arrival of Europeans that finally brought the macadamia to its knees.
In less than half the life span of a macadamia tree, over 75 % of macadamia habitat has been cleared for agriculture and housing, with survivors smothered by exotic weeds while their seedlings are eaten by livestock. Some were left as shade trees, or ironically, nurtured in our backyards where sadly, inbreeding and old age take a relentless toll.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is the relatively recent ‘success’ story of macadamias. Within a few human lifetimes the macadamia has been discovered and feted by the world. Thousands of acres of macadamias orchards have been planted throughout former habitats in Australia and like the solid ranks of an avenging army they are conquering new territories in countries as diverse as New Zealand and Paraguay, South Africa and China. Macadamia trees now number in the millions, have new homes and are universally acclaimed.
Of course, we can take pride in an Australian success story, but all is not what it might seem. You see, this dramatic new increase in macadamias originated from the nuts of just two trees, collected in Australia and spirited off to Hawaii in the 1880s. Most of the varieties bred in Hawaii appear to have come from these two trees: our ‘avenging army’ is, in fact, an army of clones!
Meanwhile our rainforest macadamias are living a very different life. As the commercial hybrids prosper throughout the world our wild trees have never recovered from early habitat clearing and the introduction of weeds and rats; they’ve been forced to exist in smaller and smaller groves on creek banks or shelter in secluded gullies and road reserves. In southeast Queensland and northern NSW booming coastal populations have spread into the previously uncleared hinterland where houses, roads or quarries are replacing wild trees and isolating populations, making them vulnerable to smothering weeds, inbreeding or fire.
Our wild macadamia trees need and deserve our help. No one is deliberately trying to harm an Australian icon; we might not know that they’re becoming rare, we might not recognize them or know that they are present nearby, we may not even know where all the populations are.
The Australian Macadamia Society (AMS), the industry peak body of growers and processors, commissioned the first Threatened Species Recovery Plan for the four wild macadamia species. That plan has now been adopted by the relevant State and Federal Governments. The plan calls for the discovery and mapping of all remnant populations and research into their genetic health and physical threats. Recovery actions include weed control of remnant habitat, fencing to exclude stock and protection from indiscriminate clearing and wildfire. The plan calls for property owners and Landcare groups to be given advice on how to protect trees and undertake some form of property conservation management.
The Macadamia Conservation Trust works to implement the Recovery Plan. You can help by spreading the word, donating to the Trust and inviting others to become Wild Macadamia Champions.
Wild macadamias need and deserve a helping hand!