The pencil yam also known as small yam or native bean is a trailing herb or creeper, sometimes covering large areas, with bright green leaves and yellow flowers.
The roots of the pencil yam are an important food for the indigenous people of Central Australia. It is only found in the northeastern third of Central Australia and is already rare. The above ground portion of this plant dies off a month or so after rain and it is then that people collect the edible tuber. Considerable skill is required to locate the plant, requiring detailed knowledge of the specific habitat and the plant characteristics.
The rarity of this plant has led to its being listed by the Northern Territory government as an endangered species. Loss of traditional cultural knowledge and the trend towards processed foods continues to threaten the existence of the pencil yam. The discontinuation of traditional indigenous farming techniques, coupled with wildfires will eventually lead to the destruction of the species.
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 pencil yam has been part of the diet of the indigenous Central Australians for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous people dig them up in creekbeds. The swollen roots (tubers) are edible and if eaten raw are juicy, starchy with a rather bland taste. More usually they are roasted in hot sand and ashes and then they are not dissimilar in taste to roasted sweet potato, though much more starchy.