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The Bunya Pine: A Strange, Impressive, and Useful Tree

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A view of a bunya pine cone from an interesting perspective

A view of a bunya pine cone from an interesting perspective

What Is a Bunya Pine?

The bunya pine, or Araucaria bidwillii, is famous for its huge cones and its delicious seeds. It's a relative of the monkey puzzle tree, another curious plant. Like its relative, the bunya pine is an evergreen conifer that has an unusual branching pattern, strange leaves, and edible seeds inside a large cone. Even the smaller female cones are the size of a bowling ball. Some can be as large as a person's head. It's often dangerous to be under a tree when it's dropping its cones.

The bunya pine tree is native to Queensland in northeastern Australia and belongs to the family Araucariaceae. The family was widespread in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Its members existed in both the northern and southern hemisphere and coexisted with dinosaurs. Today the family is restricted to the southern hemisphere, except for cultivated specimens, but its members still have unique features that are sometimes described as "reptilian".

The two-tiered appearance of a bunya pine tree

The two-tiered appearance of a bunya pine tree

Based on its common name, we might assume that the bunya pine is a type of pine tree. This isn't the case, however. The bunya pine belongs to the family Araucariaceae. Pine trees belong to the family Pinaceae. Both families belong to the order Pinales, so they are distant relatives.

Unusual Trunk and Branches

A bunya pine tree may reach a height of 45 meters (about 148 feet), a diameter of 1.5 meters (around 4 feet), and a spread of 15 meters (49 feet). Further examinations of the trees may lead to changes in these numbers. The fully-grown tree is certainly large, however.

The thick and sturdy trunk is very straight and is brown to black in color. It has a horizontally furrowed bark. In older trees, the furrows may be deep. The trunk is often said to resemble the leg of an elephant or a dinosaur in appearance.

The branches of a bunya pine have a strange appearance. They are arranged around the trunk in whorls. They are bare except for a dense tuft of small secondary branches at their tips, which bear spiky leaves.

The immature tree is shaped like a pyramid. As it matures, it loses some of its lower branches and develops a dome-shaped crown at the upper part of the trunk. After the lower branches drop, shorter whorls of branches often develop from dormant buds below the domed crown. This sometimes gives the tree a two-tiered appearance.

Araucaria is derived from the tribe name Aracanos; bidwillii is named after John Carne Bidwill, who brought a live specimen back to England in the mid 1800s.

— National Arboretum Canberra

A close-up view of bunya pine leaves

A close-up view of bunya pine leaves

Strange Leaves

Like the trunk and branches, the leaves of the bunya pine are unusual. They are arranged in multiple rows that surround a branch and may overlap each other. The leaves are stiff and pointed. The prickly points can be very painful when they jab into the skin. Anyone who has to deal with the plant should wear protective clothing. On younger branches, the leaves are arranged in opposite rows instead of in multiple rows around the branch. The tree is evergreen.

The leaves of a bunya pine resemble those of a monkey puzzle tree but aren't identical. The leaves of the monkey puzzle tree are roughly triangular in shape with a pointed tip and a wide base. Those of the bunya pine have a pointed tip and a tapered base. Both leaf types are sometimes likened to a reptile's scales.

The bunya pine produces a high quality, light yellow wood. The wood is useful for making furniture and for constructing the soundboard of acoustic guitars.

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Impressive Cones

The tree is monoecious. The term means that male and female reproductive structures (cones in this case) are found on the same plant. A tree bearing mature female cones is potentially very dangerous. The cones weigh ten to fifteen pounds or sometimes even more. They are often said to resemble dark green pineapples. Bunya pine cones are generally larger and heavier than pineapples, however, and they have the added danger of falling to the ground from a height. Some public gardens barricade the area around the trees when the female cones are dropping, since a blow from a cone could be deadly for visitors.

Unlike the female or seed cones, the male or pollen ones are long and slender. They have a much smaller mass than the female cones. Their pollen grains are carried by wind to the seed cones. Pollination occurs in September and October. The seed cones fall to the ground in December to March, but not in the months immediately following pollination. The cones drop and the nuts are ready to extract about seventeen months after pollination occurs.

Nuts and Seeds of a Bunya Pine

The cone of a bunya pine contains fifty to a hundred and fifty "nuts", although these don't have the same structure as the nuts of a flowering plant. Each nut is enclosed by a thin covering of tissue, or husk, which can be easily removed. Once this is done, the seed coat or shell of the nut must be opened with a nutcracker or hammer to reveal the large and very tasty seed inside.

I've never tasted a bunya pine seed, but it reportedly has a delicious, nutty flavour. The seeds can be eaten raw but are often boiled—sometimes in brine—or roasted. They are also steamed, fried, and baked. The roasted seeds are said to taste like chestnuts. The seeds are high in carbohydrates and low in fat. A tree doesn't produce seeds until it's fourteen to twenty years old.

Bunya pine seeds generally take a long time to produce an aerial shoot. The shoot may not appear until several months to well over a year after a seed is planted.

Bushfood or Bush Tucker

Bunya pine nuts are a wonderful food resource that often goes unused. A growing number of people are becoming interested in the nuts as bushfood, however. Bushfood is also known as bush tucker. It was originally collected or hunted in the wild by the indigenous people of Australia. Collecting bushfood is a similar idea to the process of foraging in the wild areas of North America.

When nuts are available, they're sold at roadside stands in some parts of Australia. The seeds inside the nuts can either be eaten whole or ground to make a flour or paste. The flour is used to make pancakes, breads, cakes, and other baked products.

Importance of the Tree to Indigenous People

The aboriginal people of Australia once considered bunya pines to be sacred plants. The trees were so important to their culture that cutting one down was illegal according to their laws.

Every three years, when the yield of nuts peaked, huge numbers of indigenous people would gather to celebrate the harvest and feast on the nuts. On at least some occasions, thousands of people would travel as far as hundreds of kilometres to reach the celebration. The event was traditionally held in the Bunya Mountains of Queensland. The local people collected the nuts and either cooked them right away or stored them underground to improve their flavor.

The gathering was also used for socialization between different groups and for important events, such as trading, the arrangement of marriages, and the settlement of disputes. Tribal differences were temporarily set aside during the celebration. According to the Queensland Museum, the last of the traditional Bunya Gatherings is thought to have been held in 1902.

The Bunya Dreaming Festival

In recent years, a festival known as Bunya Dreaming has been held in Australia. This event began in 2007. It's a celebration of all things bunya and is held in memory of the older festivals. Many different foods made from bunya seeds are on display. The festival also includes cone gathering activities, husking competitions, weight-guessing events, music performances, story telling events, and displays of art made from cones.

A Bunya Dreaming festival was held in January, 2015. According to the event's Facebook page, the nut crop wasn't very good in 2016, so no festival was held in that year. The festival was also absent in 2017. The 2018, 2019, and 2020 events were held, however. Although the 2021 event was cancelled, the tradition of holding a festival when the nut crop is good appears to be alive and well.

The world's largest population of Araucaria bidwillii today exists in the Bunya Mountains National Park in Queensland. The tree is sometimes referred to as bunya bunya by the local people

Population Status of the Bunya Pine

The bunya pine grows slowly and lives for a long time—perhaps for six hundred years or more. There is a lot that is still unknown about the plant. It's not a threatened species at the moment, though as explained below a problem that might become serious has developed. The National Arboretum Canberra says the "active conservation" of the tree is important because of its value to indigenous people and the problems that may develop due to climate change.

According to the arboretum, the tree is harvested to some extent. The harvesting process appears to be sustainable and to be done in plantations. The wood of the tree is used to create the soundboard of some guitars and to make furniture. I've seen reports of people creating other items from fallen trees that they've discovered. Bunya pine wood is appreciated by professional and amateur woodworkers.

Disease and a Phytophthora Infection

A worrying situation with respect to the bunya pine population has appeared. At the end of 2019, investigators announced that the populations of the bunya pine and the hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) were "rapidly declining" in the Bunya Mountains National Park. The trees are turning yellow and dying.

The cause of the problem is believed to be an infection by Phytophthora, an organism that resembles a fungus but is classified as an oomycete, or a water mold. Oomycetes live in both water and wet soil. They reproduce by producing spores, which can survive drier conditions.

Phytophthora multivora has been found in tissue from diseased bunya pines. According to one person familiar with the situation, the mold has likely been present in the tree’s population for a decade but flared up two or three years ago.

Growing a Bunya Pine

The bunya pine can be an interesting tree to grow as an ornamental plant and as a source of food, though I've never done this myself. The tree grows slowly, so it's sometimes used as an indoor plant. It eventually needs to be planted outdoors, however.

Germination

Since germination can take so long, some people prefer to buy a bunya pine as a seedling rather than as a seed. There is a special joy in seeing a seed germinate, but this joy may be postponed for a long time when someone plants a bunya pine seed.

The early growth of the plant follows an interesting pattern. When the seed germinates, it sends a taproot downward. The root often continues its penetration into the soil until it hits a hard surface. It then forms an enlarged tuber. The tuber may enter dormancy until conditions are right for growth. At this point, lateral roots and a shoot are produced.

After Germination

The tree prefers full sun but tolerates some cold. It needs to be watered regularly but must be planted in well drained soil. The location for the tree needs to be considered carefully, since it will grow very tall and could eventually produce heavy and potentially dangerous cones. The area around the plant needs to be protected so that the female cones don't damage property or injure people as they drop.

Even though safety precautions are necessary and there is an extended time before plant maturity, growing a bunya pine sounds like a worthwhile activity. The tree is certainly a noteworthy plant. I hope the Phytophthora problem is solved soon. The bunya pine is an interesting component of life on Earth.

References

  • Bunya pine information from the Permaculture Research Institute
  • Araucaria bidwillii facts from The Gymnosperm Database
  • Facts about the tree from the National Arboretum Canberra
  • Information about the Bunya Dreaming Festival from ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation News)
  • Bunya nuts are increasing in popularity from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
  • Auraucaria dieback: A threat to native and plantation forests (Abstract) from the Queensland Government
  • Ancient bunya trees in Queensland are dying from ABC News in Australia

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I want to grow bunya pines, but I understand you need males and females. How do you buy a male or a female bunya pine tree?

Answer: Male and female cones are borne on the same tree. Separate male and female trees don't exist in the species (except perhaps as an abnormality). The female cones are pollinated by wind. There is little information available about the success rate of self-pollination versus cross-pollination, however. Based on what I've read, self-pollination can occur, but cross-pollination (obtaining pollen from a different bunya pine tree) has a higher success rate.

Question: Would the bunya tree grow and live in WA state? Eastern WA is dry, and a part of the Sonora desert.

Answer: I can't say for certain because I'm not familiar with the tree in the United States. I have read several seemingly reliable sources that say that the tree grows well in USDA zones 9 to 11, however. Perhaps an agriculture expert in your area could give more information.

Question: I would like to acquire a small or medium size bunya pine cone to use as a prototype to make a mold. Do you know where I can get one?

Answer: This depends on where you live since you would probably have to pick up the cone in person. It would be expensive to send a heavy bunya pine cone in a parcel and may not be allowed in some countries. You could do some research to see if a botanical garden, research station, or similar facility near where you live has a bunya pine tree producing cones. They may be happy to give you a cone if they do. The Melbourne Gardens in Australia has 19 bunya pine trees, for example (or at least they did in 2014 when their web page about the tree was last updated) and collect a lot of cones.

Question: What are the morphological characteristics and chemical constituents of bunya pine? Is the tree used for medicinal purposes?

Answer: The morphology of the tree is described in the article and shown in the photos. Like other plants, bunya pine contains a huge variety of chemicals that are too numerous to list. The tree almost certainly contains chemicals that haven't been discovered in the plant yet. This relates to your third question. As far as I know, the tree isn't used medicinally, and researchers haven't discovered medicinal chemicals in it. That doesn't mean that the substances aren't present, though. Researchers may one day find them.

Question: Why do people tend to use Bunya pine for good quality furniture?

Answer: The wood has a fine texture and is said to have a straight grain. People who have access to the wood say that it's easy to work with.

Question: Do people make wooden bowls from the Bunya pine tree? I have a small bowl from the Salvation Army thrift store in Flint, Michigan I suspect may be made from this tree.

Answer: It's possible; the wood is appreciated by both carpenters and guitar makers. I have seen a few photos of wooden bowls that are said to have been made from bunya pine. I don't know how accurate the claims are, though.

© 2014 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 06, 2019:

Hi, Joshua. The tree generally doesn't produce cones until it's at least fourteen years old, so yours is probably still too young at the moment.

joshua on June 03, 2019:

I have a bunya pine, about 15 ft tall. only started this year taking care of it, and all the pictures and talks about it talks about the cones. I have yet to see this on this bunya pine. it has been in this atrium for at least 10 years or more.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2019:

As I say in the article, the tree sometimes reaches a height of almost 148 feet.

alex.H on May 16, 2019:

How big can the tree grow

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2018:

Hi, Carol. I don't know of a place that currently sells the seeds or seedlings in Canada. When I did a Google search for "Bunya pine seeds or seedlings for sale in Canada", a U.S. company was shown on the first page of the results. On their website they say that they ship internationally. You could try contacting them to see if they ship the seeds to Canada.

Carol on March 19, 2018:

Where can you buy seed or seedling to plant in Canada?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 05, 2018:

Hi, Alan. I am afraid that I have no experience with the Norfolk Island pine. Both the Wisconsin Poison Center and the Illinois Poison Center list the plant as nontoxic for humans. That is not the same thing as saying that the seeds are edible, though. The needles and bark definitely shouldn't be eaten. I have seen some sources that say the seeds can be eaten by humans, but I can't recommend this until I'm certain that it's safe.