Oldman Saltbush is a native Australian shrub with abundant edible leaves and seeds. Being easy to grow, maintain, and suitable to a wide array of climates, it is a wonderful addition to any waterwise garden or larger scale agricultural setting. This article will cover the background of this plant and its relative saltbushes, guide you in growing it and discuss some uses of the plant.
A Quick Background
Not many genera can lay claim to being part of the traditions of peoples in every hemisphere of the planet, but Atriplex, better known as saltbush, is one of them. Found on every continent except Antarctica and native to everywhere but Africa, this group of plants is truly global, and is the most species-rich genus in the family Amaranthaceae.
Mediterranean saltbush is known and named in the Bible as what the Jews ate upon returning from Babylonian exile, and its use is widespread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. Varieties of saltbush were also commonly eaten in ancient Britain (Orache), by indigenous tribes of the Americas (Chamiso, Shadscale), and throughout Eurasia (Spearscale). Here, in Australia, where 61 of the world’s species are found, First Nations peoples have used them forever as important and indispensable parts of Country, culture, and diet.
Today, the most commonly used of these 61 species is Oldman Saltbush, or if you like Latin, Atriplex nummularia,the name of which actually derives from the coin-like leaves of the plant. In light of this, I encourage you to pay your taxes in saltbush leaves. It was nice to dream there for a moment that this would be possible!
Look like coins to you?
About Oldman Saltbush
Oldman Saltbush is native to most arid and semi-arid regions of Australia, and occurs in every state except ACT and Tasmania. It is a versatile plant that has adapted to dry and saline conditions, and so is an excellent choice for edible waterwise gardens in the Perth region, as well as rehabilitating salinised land by drawing up salts from the soil. It is especially useful in inland farming areas, as it makes good fodder for grazing animals whilst also healing Country from the poor farming practices of the past.
Read on to learn how to grow this amazing plant.
This sheep loves saltbush!
How To Grow
Oldman Saltbush can be grown from seed, cuttings or from bought seedlings. Seeds must be soaked overnight and planted in trays or pots with a high-quality seed raising mix, then the soil kept moist over a period of 4-6 weeks, when germination will occur and the seedlings can be hardened out. Cuttings should be 8-10cm long and inserted into a propagating mix, then positioned in a warm spot with regular watering. The easiest but most costly method would be obtaining a seedling from a plant nursery which you can plant directly in your desired location, preferably with fertile soil, and watered in. The best time to do this is during the Noongar seasons Djeran (late autumn) through to Djilba (late winter to early spring).
Saltbush grows vigorously, and so if you want to keep it in a desired shape it would be wise to prune it regularly. This could be done with a product such as these bypass secateurs.
There are plenty of places online to order seed, and most major nurseries in Perth will regularly sell seedlings.
How to Use Oldman Saltbush
Oldman Saltbush can grow to 3 metres tall and 5 metres wide, and can be trained to be an attractive hedge. The leaves are used as a leafy green or herb, and the seeds can be ground to bake or use as seasoning.
Oldman saltbush seeds
As a Herb
The flavour is unsurprisingly salty, however it still contains 20% less sodium than table salt, a wonderful health bonus for those trying to cut down. One of the best ways to do this is by drying the leaves (using a herb dryer) and grinding them down to a powder. On top of this, it delivers plenty of other nutrients, including Magnesium, Calcium, Zinc, Nitrogen and Iron, as well as lovely antioxidants.
As a Leafy Green
Oldman Saltbush is delicious when cooked with meat, fried or baked by itself with oil or eaten in salads. The benefits of Oldman Saltbush can also be reaped medicinally, by soaking the leaves in water and using as a poultice for burns and scrapes.
These knowledges are part of the tradition of mobs from around the continent; it is important to know that this is living culture, not locked in the past, and should be respected as such. Engaging with this plant automatically means engaging with Aboriginal knowledge, creating an opportunity to engage with Aboriginal people and their culture, however that looks in your life.
Oldman Saltbush, as well as many of the other saltbushes around Australia and the world, is truly a wonderful plant that can provide so much to the land and all the creatures, including us, who depend on it. The beauty of this group of plants is exactly in their near universality; almost everyone has traditions around saltbush, opening up possibilities for dialogue and fellow feeling, if it is allowed to flourish and if people can connect to those traditions. Hopefully this article can help people bring themselves in right relation through this plant to the land and to each other.
Global distribution of Atriplex genus