An unexpected gift from a currawong finds a happy and grateful recipient, writes
Paulette Whitney on the joys of currawongs.
Areal photographer would be horrified, and hygiene freaks would have apoplexies. In fact I suspect most normal people would be quite disgusted, but who wants to be normal when there is fun food to grow?
I’d been walking innocently up a hill one autumn, photographing plants and occasionally plucking a wild snowberry or cheeseberry (spoiler alert: they don’t taste like cheese; they apparently looked like a wheel of Edam to the starving botanist who named them) when I found myself in a stand of native pepper plants. They’re lush things, but apparently so low on the evolutionary tree that they can’t withstand prolonged drought or intense heat, so they linger in the wild only where it’s cool and damp. The odd tourist has been tricked into nibbling on the “Tasmanian sugar bush” only to have their head blown off by the unexpected heat of the leaves.
That heat mellows with cooking – we love to slow-roast a joint of mutton on a little nest of pepper branches and make a warming gravy with the juices – but the real prize is the berries. Fruity, floral and herbaceous all at once with a quick, minty heat, they give your cooking a pretty pink tint. One native pepper plant only bears male flowers – the female flowers and berries are borne on a separate plant. The serious propagator — chasing a good yield of fruit in a minimum amount of time and a perfect ratio of female to male plants for good pollination — would grow from cuttings, literally choosing the sex of their babies. Sure, they take a few years to grow and become productive, but you’d be secure in the knowledge of a sound investment in plants with the desired traits.
But bugger that.
I’m perched on a rock eating a sandwich and listening to the currawongs when I notice one of them has deposited a little gift on a stump beside me. I know that not everyone sees bird vomit as a gift, but please bear with me.
Berries are Mother Nature’s parcelpost system. Plants have their romantic way with one another, spreading pollen via insect, wind or bird, as is their wont. But plants also don’t want the kids hanging around sponging off them, so they pack their babies up in delicious, fruity packages and wait for somebody to eat that fruit, wander or fly about while they digest, then excrete, or in the case of my currawong mates, vomit the seeds in a new location. After I’d finished eating I scooped up a few of those currawong regurgitations, wrapped them in my sandwich paper and stuffed them into my camera case, as valuable as any lens or filter, to carry down the hill to home.
Back in the garden I spread the pellets of spewed seed onto trays of compost, buried them with another layer of compost and left them out in the elements.
Seeds, being smart, have methods to delay germination until favourable conditions arrive. These pepper seeds, adapted to stingingly cold winters, wait until they have withstood a period of cold, and, when they think the worst has passed, they thrust their tiny seed leaves to the light. The following spring I picked each plant from their tray of compost, giving each their own pot to grow in and two years later they were ready to plant out.
As luck had it, two of my best mates, fellow cooks and plant nerds, were getting married that summer near the hill where I’d gathered the regurgitated seed. I wrapped little male and female pepper plants as a wedding gift, to be tucked into the garden of their family home. It seemed a perfectly romantic gesture, as long as I was circumspect about its exact origins, and I hope, someday soon to be invited over for a joint of lamb roasted on a bed of leaves grown from that long-ago currawong’s gift.
I know that not everyone sees bird vomit as a gift, but please bear with me.