Last updated 16/03/2015
Pandanus are bountiful right across Northern Australia, from beaches to open woodland to dense tropical forest along river banks, although they prefer areas with some fresh water. There’s over 30 different species in Australia with the most common being Pandanus Spiralis. They all have similar features and uses. The strap like leaves have a serrated edge and propagate out from a central cluster. The points on the serrated edges break off easily when touched, often leaving splinters, as I’ve found out on many occassions. New leaves grow in a spiral arrangement up the trunk. The remnants of old leaves can sometimes be seen spiralling up the trunk, which leads to the common name of screw palm. Some pandanus spiral clockwise, some spiral anti-clockwise. I’m not sure how the plant decides which way to screw. Pandanus produce large, heavy, woody, pineapple looking fruit which ripen orange from August to January.
The most obvious use of Pandanus is as an easy source of bush tucker. The white growing bases of the leaves are edible and easy to access, either by pulling out individual leaves by their bases or by cutting off all the leaves to reveal the white cabbage-like cluster of leaf bases. The taste is similar to cabbage, or maybe silverbeet, or simply generic vegetable like flavour. It can be eaten raw or cooked.
The fruit separates into wedges, with each wedge housing several small almond like nuts. The wedges are incredibly hard and the nuts are very difficult to extract. I would have easily expended more energy trying to extract the nuts than what I got from eating them when I gave it a go. Slam down on the fruit wedges with a machete and you have a small cut to the surface. It took me several swings with a small axe to break apart the wedges, which revealed only one or two nuts, the rest still being hidden within the wedge requiring more axe work to access. I suppose with some practice it may become economical but as a survival food the leaf bases are probably a better option. The nuts taste good though, with a flavour similar to almonds. They’re also high in fat and protein so provide good energy if you can get to it.
The fruit wedges are tough and fibrous, but depending on species, sometimes the base of the wedges are soft enough to chew or suck to extract some sweet tasting pulp. The fruit stalk itself, which remains after all the wedges have been removed, is also edible, although is usually quite woody.
Indigenous Australians had a few other uses for Pandanus. They used the leaves as strapping or string fibre to make baskets, mats, dilly bags, bracelets and various ceremonial objects. The dead stems or branches were used to make didgeridoos as the fibrous inside disintegrated to leave a hollow tube. The dead branches were also used as fire carriers – the fibrous inside would slowly smoulder like a huge cigar, allowing fire to be transported from camp to camp. The cabbage was pounded into a paste and used as an antiseptic ointment for sores and wounds. So with these uses as well as being a bush tucker, the Pandanus is a versatile plant of Northern Australia.