Getting your kids into the garden from a young age is a great way to start developing their “nature smarts” as early as possible. Without realising it, they’ll learn so much about plants, water, soil and bugs (hooray for pollinators!), simply by interacting with the space within reach. Bushfood gardens in particular, can be especially rewarding for the curious minds, wandering hands and hungry mouths of young children.
Picking the right plants for a child-safe space can be tricky, though, as even safe edibles can come with considerations we adults take for granted. Here’s what we recommend to parents looking to set up an edible backyard for their kids.
Please note: Our recommendations are of a general nature. We strongly advise doing additional research regarding health and safety factors specific to your child and home.
How safe is the whole plant?
Not every bushfood plant is completely safe for a child to eat. The Red Back Ginger, for example, produces pleasant tasting berries that are safe to eat, but it’s often advised against eating too many of the seeds.
In a similar category, you’ll find potatoes with their edible tubers but alkaloid-rich leaves, fig plants with their delicious fruit but irritating sap, and of course, the very spicy Bloodroot, which is good fun for adults, but less so for unsuspecting children. Fortunately, the inedible parts of these plants tend to be unpalatable as well, and thus unlikely to tempt a curious child too often.
“Partially safe” plants can still have a place in a child-friendly backyard if your kids are old enough to listen and understand. However, we recommend parental supervision for babies and toddlers, especially around plants known to contain harmful substances in their inedible parts.
What’s good? Midyim Berries and Wild Currant aren’t known to contain toxins or irritants. Sea vegetables like Sea Celery and Sea Purslane are a fairly safe bet, if slightly on the salty side. Bain/Karkalla, a popular succulent groundcover, is reasonably low-risk too, though we don’t recommend eating too many uncooked leaves.
Is it safe to eat without preparation?
Some native plants need to be cooked or prepared a certain way to render them safe to eat. Warrigal Greens and Ruby Saltbush leaves, for instance, contain oxalates, a naturally occurring chemical known to cause kidney stones when consumed in large quantities. These oxalates break down easily when the leaves are boiled, blanched or steamed.
Meanwhile, some native fruits — like Tucker Bush Cherry, Blue Lilly Pilly, Small-leaved Tamarind and Large Leaf Tamarind — contain inedible seeds that might not be suitable for children of all ages. Young toddlers will need adult supervision when playing with these plants due to the size of the fruit seed.
What’s good? We recommend Muntries, Blue Tongue and Midyim Berries for sweet, fuss-free fruits, and the Lemon Aspen as a super sour novelty. For something more savoury: Sea Parsley, Seablite, Old Man Saltbush and Native River Mint.
Is it safe to touch?
Finally, while it’s often recommended to give kids a diverse range of textures and sensory experiences, some plants may offer more than you bargain for — like prickles, thorns, irritants and allergens. The Sandpaper Fig, for example, produces wonderful fruit your child can enjoy straight off the tree, but be aware that its milky latex sap — typically found weeping from broken stems — may irritate their skin, lips and eyes.
Likewise, as with many citrus trees and berry bushes, the Finger Lime and Atherton Raspberry come with prickles and thorns to defend their delicious fruit. While usually fine for older kids who can tell the difference between sharp and safe, we don’t advise this plant for the very young.
Succulents and native herbs, however, tend to offer a softer environment. Consider planting Karkalla groundcover and salty Seablite — they may look somewhat alien, but they’re definitely gentler on tiny fingers and mouths.
What’s good? Aside from the aforementioned, we also recommend WA Samphire (not as pokey as it seems), Bush Basil (it only looks like an itchy plant), Native Mulberry (non-stinging nettle) and Black Apple (no thorns, not a real apple).