The Bunya Pine: A Strange and Useful Tree
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. 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, or even bigger. It's actually 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".
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 (almost 148 feet) and a diameter of 1.5 meters (a little over 4 feet). 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.
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. On younger branches the leaves are arranged in two opposite rows instead of in multiple rows.
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 musical instruments such as acoustic guitars.
Male and female cones are borne on the same tree. 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
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.
Collecting and Extracting Bunya Pine Seeds
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.
Roasting and Shelling Bunya Nuts Outdoors
The 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. 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 and the arrangement of marriages. 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 world's largest population of bunya pines today exists in the Bunya Mountains National Park in Queensland.
A Tribute to the Bunya Pine or Bunya Bunya
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 and 2019 events were held, however. The tradition appears to be alive and well.
A Tree Profile for Gardeners
The bunya pine grows slowly and lives for a long time—perhaps for five hundred years or more. There is a lot that is still unknown about the plant.
An Ornamental Plant
The bunya pine is an interesting tree to grow as an ornamental plant and as a source of food. The tree grows slowly, so it's sometimes used as an indoor plant. It eventually needs to be planted outdoors, however.
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 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 very 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.
Questions & Answers
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?
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.Helpful 1
Would the bunya tree grow and live in WA state? Eastern WA is dry, and a part of the Sonora desert.
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.Helpful 3
What are the morphological characteristics and chemical constituents of bunya pine? Is the tree used for medicinal purposes?
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.Helpful 2
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.
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