The Coles’ wattle (Acacia colei) is a traditional food of Australian Aboriginal people. It is a large shrub up to 9 m tall grown in hot, semi-arid watercourses areas, in the northern quarter of Central Australia. It blooms from June through July. The flowers are usually bright yellow in spikes. The seed from this plant is small but is produced in large amounts in good seasons. The seeds mature over at least one month and are easily collected. Coles’ wattle is a fast-growing but short-lived shrub.
The plant is restricted to the area of the Warlpiri language group and has been a staple food for tens of thousands of years, its availability being strongly influenced by the use of traditional fire stick farming.
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 continued existence of this food plant is under threat from introduced fauna such as camels and cattle. The dispossession of the indigenous people of their culture and traditions has meant that the fire templates used to control the growth and flowering of the plant have been neglected or disallowed by the introduction of “no fire” National Parks. Today, occasional wildfires ravage what remains.
The Coles’ wattle seed is eaten straight from the tree and is also ground into a paste and roasted on an open fire. The tree also plays host to grubs that live in the roots and the grubs also are a source of food for the indigenous people. Coles’ wattle is often subject to lac scale infections and the indigenous people feed on the honey dew that results. The red arils on the seed produce a red dye when soaked in water. This dye is used on artefacts and forms part of the body decorations for mythology and totemic use.