Researcher hails warrilyu as “truly remarkable,” seeks to bring seed to the forefront

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags warrilyu seed indigenous people Australia Eucalyptus pachyphylla Magnesium

A team of researchers took to the Australian desert to learn about Indigenous nutrition.

University of Queensland ethnobotanist Dr. Boyd Wright has spent much of his career investigating bush foods, and for the last couple years his focus has been on the warrilyu seed (Eucalyptus pachyphylla​).

The researcher told NutraIngredients-USA​ that he came across warrilyu seeds through books and while traveling the desert with Aboriginal peoples.

MYRT Eucalyptus pachyphylla 6
Eucalyptus pachyphylla

According to Wright, warrilyu has been eaten by Aboriginal people in the neighborhood of Kiwirrkurra for generations. "It's just one of the many highly nutritious foods that Gibson Desert peoples have survived on for many thousands of years.”

With a population​ of just 216 as of 2011, Kiwirrkurra has been described as the most remote community in Australia.  It is reported to be the last area where Aboriginal people in Australia were still living a nomadic hunter gather lifestyle.

Wright has been working with the Kiwirrkurra people in Western Australia's Gibson Desert to learn more about the seed he predicts will make a comeback. 

"It's truly remarkable – it has the highest levels of magnesium that I've ever seen in a seed, it's extremely dense in calories and its fatty acid profile is also rather impressive,"​ he said.

Nutritional analysis

Warrilyu seed samples were analyzed at Symbio laboratory, in Brisbane, Queensland, using standard seed testing protocols. According to the report, protein was analyzed with a LYCO brand machine, moisture was quantified through direct drying, ash was measured via furnace-based reduction, mineral contents were evaluated using inductively coupled plasma–atomic emission spectrometry, fat profile was tested using gas chromatography, and carbohydrate content was examined using high-performance anion-exchange chromatography. 

"Traditionally, the seeds were ground to a raw paste and eaten as a cold gruel – kind of like a eucalyptus-flavored porridge,”​ said Wright, who described the seeds: “The paste has a smooth nutty flavor, which some people might find unusual.”

Restoring skills 

In what he said is the first study on the seed, Wright pointed out that while the skills required to harvest and process the seeds are slowly being lost, he hopes his research can help bridge indigenous wisdom with modern science. 

Researchers interviewed nine Aboriginal people from the Kiwirrkurra community, including Yalti and Yukultji, two of the study's co-authors from a family known as the Pintupi Nine, who made first contact with the outside world in 1984.

"When early explorers first encountered the Gibson Desert Aborigines they remarked on their outstanding physical condition, their good humor and their overall satisfaction with life in a seemingly inhospitable environment.”

Warrilyu paste

Wright highlighted the prevalence of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. "These diseases were virtually non-existent in traditional hunter-gatherer societies and their contemporary prevalence relates to changed dietary circumstances and lack of exercise.” 

Wright told us that the Australian fires have not impacted the Indiginous people or their food sources. Contrary to popular belief,  many plants actually prosper after a fire. “The people I work with in the Gibson Desert are used to fires, as they often do their own burning to promote the growth of bush foods.”

"And warrilyu seeds are an incredibly robust food source – historically they've been an important drought food, as the gumnuts are held on the trees for very long periods."

Wright and his colleagues hope the seeds health benefits can be reintroduced into Indigenous communities and promoted on a broader level. 

Seed gathering - a lost art?

"We'd love to see more use of native Australian seeds as foods in rural and urban Australia, and across the globe,"​ Wright said. “We feel that, by promoting native seed consumption domestically, we could increase exercise levels – as collecting warrilyu seeds is a very active process - and dietary quality would improve.”

"Additionally, for Indigenous Australians, regular participation in native seed gathering by young people with old people would help retain important traditional knowledge that's on the verge of being lost forever.”

However, the authors conceded limitations. “Eucalyptus pachyphylla seeds are a highly nutritious food, having high fat and protein contents and exceptionally high magnesium contents. However, given the slow harvest rates of seeds, it seems unlikely there would be a place for this species in the commercial bush foods industry unless an alternative faster, possibly mechanized, harvesting method can be devised,”​ adding that prices in the horticulture industry are usually considerably higher when seeds are from provenances in remote, difficult to access regions such as the Gibson Desert.

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Eucalyptus pachyphylla tree

Still, Wright is hopeful. "It's a brilliant opportunity, and governments should direct preventative health care funding toward community-based seed gathering programs, promoting active lifestyles and high-quality diets."

When asked if he anticipates warrilyu seeds becoming a key ingredient in dietary supplements, Wright said that is not his field, but added, “They are very high in some minerals including magnesium, so perhaps it’s possible.” 

The next chapter

While being a supplement expert isn’t his forte, authoring a book is. For the past four years, Wright has been penning a book on the Aboriginal peoples’ seed and plant-based diets. “We hope it will be published this year or next.”  

Source:Economic Botany

September 2019, Volume 73, Issue 3, pp 416–422 DOI: 10.1007/s12231-019-09471-2

“Ethnobotany of Warrilyu (Eucalyptus pachyphylla F.Muell. [Myrtaceae]): Aboriginal Seed Food of the Gibson Desert, Western Australia” 

Authors: J. Nangala, et al.

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