The mystery surrounding Australia’s ancient wild and endangered macadamia trees

Ian McConachie is eager to find the answer to an ancient mystery: how many hundreds of years do Australian wild macadamias live?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are cautioned that this article contains pictures and names of people who have died.

After decades of visiting a precious remnant of the habitat of endangered species in Queensland’s Amamoor State Forest, the founder of the Macadamia Conservation Trust has already discovered that appearances can be deceiving.

“So many people are familiar with the macadamia, but seeing it in the rainforests is simply stunning,” said McConachie AM.

“It’s nothing like you would expect, they hide among all the other trees.”

Living time capsules

An older man in a cardigan looks at the serrated leaves of a wild macadamia tree that doesn't even reach his chest.
Ian McConachie AM says this macadamia tree hasn’t grown for over 40 years.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

A self-described “macadamia dinosaur,” retired food scientist, field researcher, farmer and passionate historian, Mr. McConachie has identified a slender chest-high tree as a perfect example of how even a small plant could potentially be hundreds of years old. .

“It only has about 18 leaves. I first saw it in 1979 and between 1979 and today it hasn’t grown at all. It sits in the rainforest in thick shade, just waiting for it to get light,” he said.

The oldest planted macadamia tree in Europe has been growing in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens since 1858 and still carries a healthy nut crop.

Craig Hardner dwarfed by the oldest known cultivated macadamia tree.
Craig Hardner says this is the oldest European grown macadamia tree in the world.(Included: UQ)

“One of the initiatives we’re taking is that we’re starting to do radiocarbon dating of trees in the rainforest so we can see what their longevity is and how old they might be,” McConachie said.

Three years ago, scientists made the “shocking” DNA discovery that the global macadamia industry emanated from a single tree, or small group of trees, in Mooloo.

“There are perhaps 100 million macadamia trees grown around the world that all originated from a mother tree that is very close to here,” marveled McConachie.

Appreciated and traded by the people of the Australian First Nations, macadamia is the only plant in our country to become an international food.

Yugambeh elder Bilin Bilin and his people collected and traded macadamia nuts with Europeans.(Features: John Oxley Library, Qld State Library)

The nuts were brought to Hawaii in 1881, where the crop was first marketed.

Macadamia Trust director Andy Burnside estimated that logging, urban invasion, fire and weeds have destroyed up to 90% of the wild population.

Three people stand near an old tree
Paul O’Hare, Mary Burton and Andy Burnside at the birthplace of the world’s macadamia trees.(Supplied by: Southern Cross University)

All four of its species have been listed as endangered. With permission, the cuttings were taken from wild trees.

“The genetic basis of our commercial industry is quite narrow,” said Burnside.

“What we are trying to do is conserve some genetic material from wild trees and grow some trees in a safe environment in different arboretums in various locations in eastern Australia.”

Pest and disease resistance, size and climate adaptability are just some of the characteristics these wild trees could provide to safeguard the world’s genetically vulnerable commercial crop.

Walnuts hanging from a tree.
Macadamia nuts growing near Lismore in Northern NSW.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Business in crisis

The Australian Macadamia Society has estimated that the global value of the macadamia at the barn would be worth $ 1.63 billion this year.

“We sampled over 600 wild macadamia trees and studied their DNA markers,” McConachie said.

“We are just realizing how vastly different the genetics are and this is terribly important in the future.”

A flat sand walkway leading into the rainforest.
The Wild Macadamia Walk trail is easily accessible.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

A new Walk with the Wild Macadamias trail, including interpretive signage, has opened in front of the Amama Day Area in Amamoor State Forest, off the road that Australian country music fans drive on their annual pilgrimage to Gympie’s Music Muster .

A bearded First Nations man holds the leaf of a wild macadamia tree.
Gubbi Gubbi, Wakka Wakka, Kullilli man Russell Bennett is passionate about his country.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Traditional owner Russell Bennet hopes ecotourists will be hungry to learn more about the tasty nut and its habitat.

“I was born and raised in Gympie. I am Gubbi Gubbi, Wakka Wakka, Kullilli. This is my country. I have been a caretaker all my life and I have taken care of this country,” he said.

“I really hope we can highlight the importance of these macadamias out here so that we can preserve them and thus preserve the bush they live in.”

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