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The riberry (scientific name Syzygium luehmannii) is a medium tree found in the Australian coastal rainforests. It is sometimes cultivated for its edible fruit, growing to a maximum height of 8 to 10 m. The fruit is a berry similar to a cranberry in taste, also resembling cloves. Since the 1980s, it is valued as a gourmet bush food.
The riberry tree is native to tropical rainforests of Australia and can be found near beaches or rivers. Its range starts on the Macleay River in New South Wales and continues almost to Cairns in the tropical state of Queensland. Riberry is cultivated for its fruit, also named riberry, and for ornamental purposes. It enjoys volcanic soils or sandy ones.
The long and straight trunk has a diameter of about 90 cm, with a buttressed base in the case of large specimens. It is usually covered with reddish brown bark, which can also be grey with soft scales. It has a very dense crown. The leaves are normally small, no more than 4 or 5 cm in total, with a long pointy apex. Leaf stalks are very short, between 2 and 5 mm. The leaves are lanceolate and glossy, with a pink or red color in their youth and intense green when they mature. They grow in opposite pairs and have a simple and whole design.
The riberry tree blooms during the months of November or December, with flowers grouped in small panicles located on branches. They are small in size, about half as big as the leaves, with a 2 to 5 mm long stamina and 4-5 petals with a length of 1.5 mm.
Depending on the climate, the fruit ripens from December to February. The red berry is known as a riberry and has a shape similar to a small pear. It is small in size, no longer than 13 mm, with a single seed with a diameter of about 4 mm. It needs 25 days to germinate but the seeds are usually unreliable, cuttings being the preferred method of propagation. The fruits are edible and also consumed by the flying fox, the Australasian figbird and the emu.
Riberries have been very important in the diet of aboriginal Australians for centuries, especially those living in the rainforests, East coast and the hinterland. Women and kids were usually tasked with collecting the fruits. The berries were very popular among kids for their sweet taste and valued by adults for their medical benefits.
When the first European explorers of Captain James Cook landed in Australia, the riberry was noticed immediately. Joseph Banks, the botanist, noted the size and color of the fruit. It quickly become an ingredient in the cuisine of the early colonists, who used the fruits in their traditional jelly, jam and cordial recipes. However, both Captain Cook and the first settlers were unaware of the nutritional qualities of the riberry fruit.
The riberries can be consumed fresh, with an intriguing spicy taste, resembling cinnamon and cloves. The aroma is also similar to spiced sweet tea and some people identify hints of honey, cranberry or musk.
The riberry is a great natural source of folate, with a content three times as high as a blueberry. Folate is especially needed during pregnancy but it continues to play an important role during adult growth. The fruit is also very rich in manganese and calcium.
The berry has a high content of anthocyanin. This compound is a very strong antioxidant that appears to protect against heart diseases and some types of cancer. It boosts cognitive function, fighting Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the combination of vitamins and minerals in the riberry fruits improves the immune system and prevents colds. The riberry pulp was also used in the past against ear infections.
Because of its attractive looks, the riberry plant is often used as a street tree or ornamental plant in gardens. It has a beautiful crown, with spectacular flowers during the summer, while providing a lot of shade. In addition, the fruit is edible and delicious. All of these advantages make the tree one of the best choices for gardens, or as a shade tree in orchards. It requires little maintenance and can be pruned to stay small in size.
The riberry fruit can be consumed raw, right after picking it from the tree. It is often prepared as a jam, which has a trademark flavor. However, it can also be turned into syrup, sauce or various types of confectionery.
The distinctive spicy taste of riberry makes it especially useful as an ingredient in chutney or sauces paired with meat dishes. These can be the traditional pork, chicken or lamb, but also kangaroo or other native venison types. It is not suited for fish or beef but works well in vegetable recipes, salads or desserts.
In cooking, the best varieties are the seedless ones, since there is no need to prepare them before use. The fruit has a very strong taste, similar to most Australian bush foods. Because of the intense flavor, it is used in small amounts as an ingredient and usually paired with other products.
Like all fruits, it can also be included in cake, ice cream or other desserts, as well as served with yoghurt. It can also be paired with cheese or combined into a very spicy alcoholic cocktail with vodka.
Collection and harvesting
The harvest time depends on the location and climate. The season is between the end of November until the half of January in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, but in the south of the continent it can last until the end of February.
The usual method to harvest the small fruits is to put nets under the trees. The ripe berries accumulate in the nets and should be collected at least once per day, although this might not be enough during the season.
The harvested riberry fruits should be stored in cold rooms the same day they are picked, after being sorted and washed. In refrigerated storage the fruits don’t last longer than two weeks. For longer storage, they have to be frozen. If frozen at -16 to -24 °C, they maintain their taste and properties for a maximum of two years.