At lunch time, behind the school, Con and his mates used to dig up sweet potatoes.
“We gave the big ones to the nuns, but us kids would eat the small ones, raw. They were sweet and juicy.”
Con went to the Good Counsel Convent school in Innisfail, run by the Good Samaritan Sisters (the Good Sammies, as they were affectionately known.) The red volcanic soil of Innisfail is ideal for growing sweet potatoes, but they’ll grow happily anywhere in Queensland, if there’s warmth, soft soil and good rain. They’re a staple across the South Pacific. They flourished in Nambour, too: in my family’s backyard.
Our yard, on a then new sub-division on Mapleton Road, sloped down towards a farm with a bull paddock. The fence was flimsy. Once, when plumbers were working on our septic tank, they occupied their smoko time with teasing the bull. My mother watched out the bedroom window, expecting the bull to break through the fence at any moment and chase the plumbers up the slope. She was disappointed when it didn’t happen.
“I’d have liked to see them trying to run up that slope, catching their feet in the sweet potato vines,” she said.
In Con’s tropical Innisfail yard there were banana plants, papaws, mangoes, passionfruit vines and citrus trees. It’s still the same in the North.
Our garden in Nambour, a 1500 km drive south and officially in the sub-tropics, had bananas and papaws, too, and also loquats, guavas, rosella plants, a mulberry bush and a big mango tree, left over from farm days. Across the state, a group of fine old mango trees, Moreton Bay figs and hoop pines often indicates that a farmhouse once stood there.
In Nambour, we never got to eat our guavas, because we would forget about them until we could smell the fruit. By then, it was too late – they’d be full of fruit fly grubs.
There was a flourishing choko vine on our fence. I haven’t eaten chokos since Mum used to cook them, serving them in white sauce to give them some flavour.
In these days of supply chain problems, we should all have a choko vine along the fence, along with all the other fruits and veggies that grow so well in Queensland.
Sadly, in old migrant suburbs like West End, because of high property values and the move towards denser housing, many fine backyard fruit and vegetable gardens are disappearing.
The Sunshine Coast hinterland north of Brisbane is perfect for growing tropical fruits and citrus in the backyard. In our Woodford yard, as well as an old mango tree there were macadamias, lemons, bananas, and a large custard apple tree of the bullock heart variety.
Huge productive avocado trees grow almost wild in Maleny backyards.
Dragon fruit vines smother Brisbane gum trees and loaded passionfruit vines festoon suburban fences; but the biggest passionfruit vine I ever saw was growing over the toilet block in the yard of the Silkwood Hotel, north of Tully. It provided shade over people enjoying a drink in the beer garden, and masses of fruit; possibly nourished by the septic tank.
We tend to take all this splendid bounty for granted, since it grows in spite of us and requires no care. Fruits that are rarities in cold climate countries are part of our everyday environment in much of Queensland, and visitors are amazed by them. When taking a drive around the Glasshouse Mountains with overseas visitors we stopped beside a pineapple farm with its neat rows of plants and young, green pineapples. Pines, as we used to call them. Our German friend looked at them in amazement. “So that’s how they grow!” he said.
I feel the same amazement when I visit Europe and see apple trees in fruit, hanging over people’s garden walls, or when I look at photos of my granddaughter picking apples in her Opa’s Berlin garden.
In York, U.K., in my friend’s wintery garden there was an enormous pear tree. It had one yellow pear still hanging on it on, metres above the ground. I’d had no idea that pear trees grew so big, and that you could just grow them in your back yard.
That big Nambour mango tree is long gone now, making way for brick and concrete; and in the old bull paddock there is a sprawl of houses. I’d be willing to bet sweet potato vines are still flourishing somewhere nearby, though.
When I first had a meal at my future mother-in-law Min’s house in Innisfail she said, “Do you like sweet potato?”
I didn’t, but of course I said yes. From then on, it was always on the menu when we ate there.
Years later when we visited, Min, now elderly, looked exhausted.
“What have you been doing, Mum?” Con asked.
“Well, I didn’t have any sweet potato, and I know Rose loves it, so I walked into town to buy some,” she replied.
A kilometre each way in the tropical heat.
It wasn’t the right time to tell her the truth. That time never came.
Every now and then I buy sweet potatoes, in Min’s memory, and put them in the potato basket and forget about them. By the time I notice them again they have sprouted, so I throw them out in the garden to rot away and nourish the soil.
They don’t rot, though; they keep growing until I trip over the vines.
I love sweet potato but have never thought about growing them. When we lived in Melbourne in the 1980s there was an ancient apricot tree in the back yard. I filled many jars with delicious apricot jam. Now, in Queensland, we have citrus trees which are so productive we give away more than we eat. Probably a good thing you never told Min you didn’t like sweet potato!
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I’m still aiming to love sweet potato one day…