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Green leaves of old man saltbush
Old man saltbush is a lovely native shrub with silver-grey foliage. Its seeds were traditionally ground and used in bush tucker to flavour damper. Today its salty, earthy-flavoured leaves are a gourmand’s delight. Use fresh in stir-fries and salads or dried in herb blends and seasoning mixes. It’s easy to grow and drought-hardy once established.


What you need to know about old man saltbush

Name: old man saltbush, saltbush, purngep (Atriplex nummularia).

Height: 1–3m.

Plant type: perennial woody shrub.

Climate: cool and warm temperate, arid and sub-tropical.

Soil: prefers well-drained, but is tolerant of most soil types.

Position: full sun to part shade.

Foliage: silver-grey, elliptical to circular-shaped with wavy margins.

Flowering and fruiting: small flowers, with male and female flowers borne on separate plants. Female flowers form dense clusters approximately 20cm long, while male flowers are globular and crowded along or on the ends of branches.

Feeding: not required, but will benefit from an annual dressing of a slow-release fertiliser formulated for native plants.

Watering: water regularly until well established.

Appearance and characteristics of old man saltbush

Old man saltbush is an attractive ornamental shrub, growing up to 3m tall and up to 5m wide. The leaves have a scaly coating that gives them a silvery-grey appearance. They are edible, strongly salt-flavoured and can be picked at any time of the year. Old man saltbush can grow in a wide range of soil types and conditions, including sandy soils on coastal sites. Once established, it is drought-hardy.

An old man saltbush bush with flowers

How to use old man saltbush

The silvery-grey foliage is a wonderful colour contrast in the garden, especially when planted against darker-leaved plants. Grow and prune into a hedge or privacy screen, or allow it to grow as a sprawling specimen in garden beds. It’s tolerant of sandy soils and salt spray, so is perfect for coastal gardens. The leaves can be harvested year-round for use in salads, roasts, stir-fries and other savoury dishes and are a good source of protein.

How to grow old man saltbush

Choose a spot in full sun with well-drained soil. Enrich with organic fertiliser and fork in well. Dig a hole twice as wide and to the same depth as the existing root ball. Remove the plant from its pot, loosen the mix to free the roots and place in the centre of the planting hole. Backfill, firm the soil and water in well.

Close-up of green leaves of old man saltbush

Caring for old man saltbush

Water regularly until well established. Remove weeds to reduce competition, applying a light organic mulch if needed.

Pick and use the leaves as needed.

How often should you water and feed old man saltbush?

Once established, old man saltbush is drought tolerant. However, it will benefit from an occasional deep watering during hot, dry spells.

Feed in spring with a slow-release native fertiliser, if needed.

How and when to prune old man saltbush

Prune as needed to keep it compact.

Diseases and pests that affect old man saltbush

Old man saltbush is not known to be troubled by many pests or diseases. However, it can become vulnerable to attack by scale, leafhoppers or borers when under stress due to extended periods of waterlogging or hard drought. If necessary, treat with a suitable insecticide.

How to propagate old man saltbush

Old man saltbush grows from seeds or cuttings. Soak the seeds overnight and plant them in trays or pots filled with seed-raising mix. Water regularly to keep the soil moist and be patient, as germination can take up to 4–6 weeks. Alternatively, take semi-hardwood cuttings 8–10cm long and insert the base into a propagating mix, i.e., a mix of potting mix and sand. Position in a warm spot and water regularly to keep soil moist.

Safety tip

After applying fertiliser, delay harvesting for a few days and rinse well before cooking and eating. If using products to deal with pests, diseases or weeds, always read the label, follow the instructions carefully and wear suitable protective equipment. Store all garden chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.

If you like this then try

Native lemon grass: a handsome, bushy grass with a strong citrus scent.

Finger lime: a slow-growing tree with finger-like fruit filled with juicy, lime-flavoured pearls.

Native thyme: a highly aromatic herb with a minty and peppery flavour. 

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Photo credit: tuckerbush.com.au and Alamy Stock Photo


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