Plum pickings

An ancient fruit promises a new food industry for Australia.

Drone image of UQ researchers with Gulkula nursery and mine staff inspect a green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. Footage: Matthew Taylor © UQ

Drone image of UQ researchers with Gulkula nursery and mine staff inspect a green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. Footage: Matthew Taylor © UQ

The green ‘plum’, a nutritious ancient fruit eaten in Arnhem Land 53–65,000 years ago, is under the microscope of bush food researchers, who say it could one day be as popular as table grapes.


Aboriginal artist Mulkun Wirrpanda speaks little English. 

“Munydjutj,” she says, pointing to her painting of green plum (Buchanania obovata) that grows abundantly in her part of the world – East Arnhem Land – and across the far north of Australia.

Although aged in her late 70s, Mulkun sits cross-legged on the floor as she paints, in a pose that a yogi master might find difficult to sustain. 

Kneeling beside her is Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, who heads the Australian Research Council-funded Uniquely Australian Foods training centre based at UQ, which aims to transform Australia’s bush foods industry

Although the two women are from different generations and continents – Dr Sultanbawa originally hails from Sri Lanka – both share a passion for Australia’s native bush foods.

Prominent artist and Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda with UQ bush food researcher Mulkun Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Prominent artist and Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda with UQ bush food researcher Mulkun Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda works on a painting of green plum, known as munydjutj in her community,  at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda works on a painting of green plum, known as munydjutj in her community,  at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

 Beginning of a painting of green plum fruit or munydjutj by Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Beginning of a painting of green plum fruit or munydjutj by Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Prominent artist and Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda with UQ bush food researcher Mulkun Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Prominent artist and Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda with UQ bush food researcher Mulkun Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda works on a painting of green plum, known as munydjutj in her community,  at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda works on a painting of green plum, known as munydjutj in her community,  at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

 Beginning of a painting of green plum fruit or munydjutj by Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Beginning of a painting of green plum fruit or munydjutj by Yolŋu elder and artist Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Mulkun is regarded as an elder of the Yolgnu people and renowned for painting the edible plants of her country.

During an exhibition of her work in collaboration with the British-born artist John Wolseley at the National Museum of Australia in 2017, Mulkun told The Guardian’s Paul Daley: “This is the food we ate when I was young. Back then, everywhere you looked there were old people. Strong and healthy – they lived with us for a long time."


"Nowadays people die when they are only young. There are very few people as old as I am. Children are given rubbish food to eat. It is killing us.”

And it is the green plum that Mulkun calls “munydjutj” that brings Dr Sultanbawa and her international team of research collaborators to this strikingly beautiful, isolated part of Australia.

UQ bush food researcher Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa inspects nearly ripe green plum growing near Gulkula nursery in Gove, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Margaret Puls © UQ

UQ bush food researcher Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa inspects nearly ripe green plum growing near Gulkula nursery in Gove, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

UQ bush food researcher Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa inspects nearly ripe green plum growing near Gulkula nursery in Gove, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Margaret Puls © UQ

UQ bush food researcher Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa inspects nearly ripe green plum growing near Gulkula nursery in Gove, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Dr Sultanbawa has been working on Australian native foods for 12 years.

Her research on the antimicrobial properties of the Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) – also known as gubinge, billygoat plum or salty plum – helped establish a community benefit-sharing model, and boost the global market for the fruit.

Now she has her sights set on Australia’s little known green plum, sometimes referred to as “wild mango”, which archaeologists recently discovered is one of the earliest plant foods eaten in Australia.

Remains of the green plum dating back 53–65,000 years have been found preserved as pieces of charcoal at a site on Mirarr country in Arnhem Land.

But it is the future potential of the fruit that excites Dr Sultanbawa.

“The green plum could end up as popular as table grapes one day,” Dr Sultanbawa says. 

Her PhD student, Selina Fyfe, agrees.

“It’s probably one of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted,” Ms Fyfe said. She describes the fruit as tasting “very sweet – a bit like stewed fruit”.

Selina Fyfe (UQ), Kevin Wanambi (Gulkula Mining Company Pty Ltd) and Yasmina Sultanbawa (UQ) inspect newly propagated green plum at the Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Selina Fyfe (UQ), Kevin Wanambi (Gulkula Mining Company Pty Ltd) and Yasmina Sultanbawa (UQ) inspect newly propagated green plum at the Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Selina Fyfe (UQ), Kevin Wanambi (Gulkula Mining Company Pty Ltd) and Yasmina Sultanbawa (UQ) inspect newly propagated green plum at the Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

The green plum belongs to the family Anacardiaceae, which contains well-known commercialised fruit including mango (Mangifera indica), cashew apple (Anacardium occidentale) and pistachio nuts (Pistacia vera). 

Locals eat the fruit raw from the tree as it ripens after the first rains of the wet season, or when the ripened fruit falls and dries out. The plum’s flesh and seed are also mashed into a paste that is eaten.

In 2018, Ms Fyfe undertook a sensory taste testing of the East Arnhem Land’s green plum at Professor Sultanbawa’s laboratory in Brisbane. 

“There was an overwhelming reaction,” Ms Fyfe recalls. 


“When you are up in this country, you get used to hearing the local people saying how tasty and addictive the green plum is, but we found that city people on the testing panel were also describing the fruit as delicious.”

Apart from its sensory qualities, the small, green fruit also packs a nutritional punch. 

Ms Fyfe’s research found the green plum’s flesh is high in protein, dietary fibre, folate, potassium and is a good source of magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. 

The seed of the green plum is also rich in dietary fibre, iron and vitamin B9. 

Inspecting a propagated green plum plant at Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Inspecting a propagated green plum plant at Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Inspecting a propagated green plum plant at Gulkula nursery, north-east Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Ms Fyfe was due to travel to Germany in 2020 to work at the Laboratory of Professor Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin from Helmholtz Zentrum München (the German Research Centre for Environmental Health) and Technical University of Munich, who also joined the research team in East Arnhem Land. 

Professor Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin is an expert in analysing the chemistry and complex molecular compounds of foods. Using specialist equipment, he and Ms Fyfe plan to undertake further detailed chemical analyses of the green plum, including its acids and sugars profile, once international travel is possible again. 

“We need to know this information, particularly if we want to take the fruit to market,” Ms Fyfe said.

Interest in Australian native foods is booming. 

Foods indigenous to Australia often grow in harsh climates, which makes them rich sources of phytonutrients that are not only of benefit to human health, but have distinctive flavour qualities. 

The Uniquely Australian Foods team is funded by the Australian Government and has formed partnerships with industries growing and selling native indigenous foods – from native seaweeds, in collaboration with industry leader Dr Pia Winberg, to the unique sensory flavour of honey produced using Flow Hive Honey technology.

“We are working with communities and industry to develop branded products using these foods,” Dr Sultanbawa says. 


“We are also looking into the sensory characteristics of foods grown in Australia that may not be native foods, but have a distinctively Australian flavour and provenance.” 

Professor Mike Gidley, Director of the Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences at UQ, says the Uniquely Australian Foods centre investigates the properties of the raw materials to identify potential value, and establish proof of principle. 

“Once that has been achieved, then we get into defining what the business model should be,” Professor Gidley says. 

“And once the business model is defined, then you get into understanding the market value, and validating that market value. And finally, leading to the launch and successful future of branded food products.”

The team includes legal experts, chemical engineers and social scientists. 

But there is a long way to go.

Indigenous plant foods under research at The ARC Uniquely Australian Foods Training Centre at The University of Queensland. Photo: Anna Osetroff © UQ

In the case of the green plum, the fruit is wild-harvested and has only just been successfully propagated by the Aboriginal-owned Gulkula nursery in Gove, in East Arnhem Land. 

One cultivation model being considered for the green plum is enrichment planting, where additional trees are planted in areas where the green plum naturally grows.

Mr Rus Glover, Deputy Chair of the industry body for Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB) says the challenge is getting plants like the green plum into a commercial production system that can supply mainstream Australian agricultural produce. 

“It makes a lot of sense to grow Australian plants in Australia," he says.


"We have the health and nutritional benefits and then we have the unique flavours of the Australian natives, which I know chefs from France, Germany, UK, USA all rave over."

“Why aren’t we using these more in our actual cuisine?”

Mr Glover says around 6400 recorded types of native foods exist in Australia.

“But the industry is dealing probably with about 35 of those, of which 18 are priority species, in other words, species that are in commercial production,” he says.

Adding to the complexity from a future branding perspective for the green plum is its name. The fruit is known by various names in different Aboriginal languages in the communities where it grows – with munydjutj, taluuny, djamuru, bigegee and yulmuru being some examples.

“We have marketing experts who will look into these issues,” Dr Sultanbawa says. 

“I don’t know the answers, but I do know that green plum is delicious and a very healthy food, which not many Australians know about.”

And, if she has her way, a future green plum industry could grow employment in indigenous communities – and be celebrated throughout the world as a sumptuous Australian food.

Plum pickings: ancient fruit ripe for modern plates


Words by Margaret Puls; photography by Margaret Puls and (Uniquely Australian Foods) Anna Osetroff; videography by Matthew Taylor.

Green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Green plum tree near the nursery, in Gove, north eastern Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Contact Details

Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa
Principal Research Fellow
Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences

Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa. Photo: Margaret Puls    © UQ

Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa. Photo: Margaret Puls © UQ

Email: y.sultanbawa@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 455 934 640
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