Researchers at the University of Queensland in Gatton are edging closer to cultivating the first commercial crops of the red bayberry outside of Asia.
The fruit has been grown for centuries in China and is sought after because of its sweet flavour and health benefits due to high levels of antioxidants.
Professor Daryl Joyce, from UQ's School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, says it is a bit like a mulberry.
"But it's actually not like any other fruit because it's a completely different species and genus to anything else in horticulture at the moment that we eat," he said.
"It's got a seed inside it like a cherry seed, it's got a flesh around it like a berry flesh and it's about the size of a lychee."
Berry a long time in development
UQ scientists have already spent 15 years developing the red bayberry in Australia.
Industry backing recently enabled researchers to enlist the help of growers who are overseeing test orchards up and down the east coast of Australia.
Dr Melinda Perkins, a research officer at UQ Gatton, says most of the trial plantings have only been in the ground for about two years.
"[They] are only just starting to produce fruit," she said.
We really need to find out what varieties perform best where, and get as many trees in the ground as soon as possible for an industry to take off in Australia.
Dr Melinda Perkins
"We've had plantings in Atherton in far north Queensland, as well as Yeppoon, the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Corindi in coastal New South Wales, and Silvan in Victoria in the Dandenong Ranges."
Growers have provided scientists with feedback, and sent fruit samples for laboratory testing.
Scientists then analysed the size, colour and sweetness of the fruit to determine under which conditions red bayberry trees produce the best yield.
Dr Perkins says scientists are looking for the sugars in the fruit.
"We look at how tart or how sour the fruit is," she said.
"We want a good sugar-to-acid ratio, a good sweet-to-sour ratio to get a good quality, nice flavoured fruit."
On average, one tree produces around 30 kilograms of fruit.
Dr Perkins says the challenge for researchers is to successfully propagate the red bayberry tree fast enough for the venture to be considered commercially viable.
"We really need to find out what varieties perform best where, and get as many trees in the ground as soon as possible for an industry to take off in Australia," Dr Perkins said.
First significant effort to produce crop outside China
Professor Joyce says this is the first significant attempt to produce red bayberry commercially outside of China.
"It's grown and consumed in sub-tropical China but it hasn't spread very far from there because it's a very perishable fruit," he said.
"There's a little bit eaten in Japan, a little bit eaten in Taiwan, but that's about it."
Professor Joyce believes the red bayberry also has the potential to provide a windfall for Australia growers.
"We want it for our growers because we think our growers can make good money out of selling red bayberry," he said.
"Berry fruit sells for quite a lot of money compared to other fruit. You see that in the supermarket with raspberries and strawberries and blackberries.
"We think [red bayberry] will be a highly profitable crop for industry and a highly delicious crop for consumers."
However, Professor Joyce says it will still be at least a few years before Australians can expect to see the red bayberry on supermarket shelves.
"I'd say three to five years time there'll be limited supplies of the fruit in capital city markets," he said.