Aboriginal people had been eating the native macadamia nuts for thousands of years, but they were not eaten by white settlers until the 1850s. The first commercial orchard was planted at Rous Hill, near Lismore, by Charles Staff in the early 1880s. However, nut-cracking machinery was not imported until the 1940s. Meanwhile, an industry had become established in Hawaii with seeds from Australia. Macadamia nuts are now a $100 million industry in Australia.
It is thought that the first European to discover the macadamia nut was the explorer Allan Cunningham in 1828. In 1843, Ludwig Leichhardt recorded the tree and took a sample to Melbourne. But it was not until 1858 that the nut received its name. Botanist Ferdinand von Mueller and the director of the Botanical Gardens in Brisbane, Walter Hill, named it Macadamia integrifolia after von Mueller’s friend Dr John Macadam, a noted scientist and secretary to the Philosophical Institute of Australia. Hill planted a tree in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens where it remains as the oldest known cultivated macadamia tree.
Of late, scientists have been researching the genetics of commercial macadamia nuts and have concluded that a high proportion of existing trees can trace their origin back to one or two wild macadamia trees growing in the Gympie area, inland from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Complicating the issue is that the original seeds taken to Hawaii are thought to have been taken from a tree still growing in Willow Grove in the Gold Coast hinterland. It may be that this tree itself draws its parentage from the Gympie trees.
Dr Craig Hardner from the University of Queensland has traced the domestication pathway of the Hawaiian trees and found strong evidence that the Willow Grove tree was one of two trees where US Navy Captain Robert Jordan collected nuts in 1892. He took them to Hawaii and planted them in his brother’s backyard. Six trees grew and were used to establish the first commercial orchard there.
Macadamia nuts are now a significant horticultural crop in the United States, Kenya and South Africa as well as Australia. They are also being grown in China, South East Asia, South America, Malawi and New Zealand.