The Wild orange (Capparis mitchellii) also known as native orange or wild pomegranate is one of the traditional Australian fruits. It started to be used by indigenous Australians long before European arrival. The Wild orange is a small compact tree about 3.5m high with dark green, somewhat leathery leaves. The flowers, which appear around September, are creamy white and quite spectacular. They open at night and wither by the end of the next day. The fruit, which are yellow-green, ripen during the hottest months of January and February. It is known for its sweet smelling. Any fruit not picked and used remains on the tree and dries out, the dried fruit falling to the ground during March and April. This plant occurs only in the most southerly section of Central Australia, in the lands of the Western Arrernte, Luritja and Pitjantjatjara Language groups.
The Wild orange is in danger of extinction due to three main threats. Firstly, most of the indigenous inhabitants no longer live in the area and have ceased to practice their traditional food customs. They have been dispossessed of their land and traditions by the colonisers. Secondly, the colonisers brought with them cattle, rabbits and camels that have had and continue to have a devastating impact on indigenous flora. Finally, with the cessation of the “firestick farming” practiced for tens of thousands of years by the indigenous people, extremely hot wild fires occur and these have killed many of the wild orange trees in Central Australia.
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.
This is an important food for the indigenous people of Central Australia providing a rich source of vitamin C and a welcome relief from the summer heat. The pulp is rarely eaten as the fruit is full of flat brown seeds, but the juice is sucked out and provides much needed liquid refreshment. The sweet juice also acts as an important source of sugar.