Bush potato

The bush potato (Ipomoea costata) is a small vine-like shrub whose longer branches often creep to the ground, sometimes rooting at the nodes. It has smooth leathery green leaves with large showy purplish-pink flowers with a red throat. The tubers of this plant, sometimes as big as a human head, have been a primary food source for indigenous Central Australians for tens of thousands of years. This is now a rare plant as the traditional Aboriginal lifestyle is gradually lost. It is found only in the northeastern quarter of Central Australia and exists only on spinifex sandplains. The bush potato is drought resistant but frost tender. The indigenous people use digging sticks to locate the tubers.

The bush potato is a totemic plant and features strongly in indigenous mythology. There are locality records of the bush potato in Central Australia and the plant is listed as an endangered species by the Northern Territory government. Controlled cool fire, as practiced by the indigenous people, encourages growth, but hot wildfires kill the plant. Improper fire management has already lead to the near extinction of the bush potato.

The land management techniques practiced by indigenous people for thousands of years indeed involve fire, an element that has a crucial role in many aspects of these communities’ lives (environmental, social, cultural, spiritual…). Using controlled fires, a knowledge that is gradually lost, enabled for example to prevent hot incontrollable wildfires to develop, and helped biodiversity and the land to regenerate.

The tubers (or roots) of the bush potato are similar to the cultivated sweet potato. They have a sweet taste and are usually juicy. Whilst they are normally cooked in the hot earth beside the fire before being eaten, their high water content makes the raw tuber a valuable resource when there is a prolonged dry period.

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