Let's celebrate Wattle Day!

Jeff Howes

On September 1, 1988 The then Governor General of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen, officially proclaimed Acacia pycnantha the Golden Wattle as Australia's national floral emblem. The proclamation ceremony was held in the National Botanic Gardens Canberra. It included planting of seven small specimens of Acacia pycnantha at the entrance to the Gardens.

History of Wattle Day

On September 20, 1889 William Sowden, later to be knighted, an Adelaide journalist and Vice President of the Australian Natives Association in South Australia suggested the formation of a Wattle Blossom League. Its aims, set down in 1890, were to "promote a national patriotic sentiment among the woman of Australia". One way of doing this was to wear sprigs of wattle on all official occasions. After an enthusiastic start the group folded. However, their presence inspired the formation of a Wattle Club in Melbourne. During the 1890s parties were led into the country on September 1 each year to view the wattles.

The concept of Wattle Day grew stronger and spread to New South Wales where the Director of the Botanic Gardens, J H Maiden called a public meeting on August 20, 1909 with the aim of forming a Wattle Day League. As a result of this meeting the first Wattle Day was held on September 1, 1910 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. On that day the Adelaide committee sent sprigs of Acacia pycnantha to the Governor and other notables in Adelaide. It was this wattle that become accepted as the official floral emblem.

Celebration of Wattle Day reached its height during World War 1. The day was used to raise funds for the war effort and many trees were denuded in order to supply the many sprigs of wattle sold on that day. Boxes of wattle were sent to soldiers in hospitals overseas and it become a custom to enclose a sprig of wattle with each letter to remind our soldiers of home. After the war Wattle Day was kept alive in schools. In 1917 however the date of Wattle Day was changed to August 1, for convenience, as that year had an early spring! In 1937 another date change, this time back to September 1 as this was the start of the school holidays!

   Acacia spectabilis
   Acacia spectabilis: Mudgee wattle
Photo: Brian Walters

Now as everyone knows Wattle day is officially September 1. My Spicers desk calendar has the following quote for September 1 this year "The soft golden wattle blooms brightly in Spring; So why do we still call the daffodil, king?" - a good question.

Sentiment has always been associated with the yellow flowers of the wattle, but the common name developed from a more practical use of the plant. The early convicts and colonists of around Sydney wove what they called 'black wattle' to build the walls of their huts. They then daubed mud on the surface, inside and out, to make a more permanent structure. This "wattle and daub' building method is the oldest known method for making a weatherproof structure and was used as far back as the Iron Age (1100 BC). Different plants are used for "wattle" - interestingly acacias were NOT used in early Sydney times. Rather, Callicoma serratifolia -- commonly called black wattle - was mainly used and and that name is preserved in Black Wattle Bay (Sydney), an early source of that plant. The 20 volume Oxford Dictionary of 1989 states that "wattle" is an old English word of dubious origin.

Of course "wattle" refers also to the flap of coloured skin that hangs from each side of the face of some birds....eg. the domestic fowl. To confuse the issue even further there are two wattle birds in Sydney and the Lttle Wattle Bird' is wattleless! The other, the Red Wattle Bird, has, of course, red wattles.

Acacia species

Acacias grow in many parts of the world. They occur in all states of Australia and in all continents other than Europe and Antarctica. When George Bentham compiled his 'Flora Australiensis' in the 1860s there were 293 species of Acacia officially recognised in Australia. Today there are approximately 900 species. Unfortunately some are officially categorised as weeds (especially in other countries). Its perfume and dense clusters of bright yellow/gold flowers captivate all those who see the wattle and it is interesting to note that each 'pom pom' flower is actually many flowers each of them perfectly formed. Not all species have golden flowers - they range from bright yellow to pale yellow or creamish white.

Nearly all species germinate readily, even when seed is several years old, provided the outer covering of the seed (the testa) is sufficiently abraded to ensure penetration of water when the seed is soaked in preparation for sowing.

Although other species are more abundant and easy to grow (Acacia baileyana is one good example) Acacia pycnantha now reigns officially as our national emblem. A.pycnantha is a shrub of small tree about 4 to 8 metres tall and occurs in the understorey of open forests or woodland and in open scrub formations in SA, VIC, NSW and the ACT, in temperate regions with mean annual rainfall of 350 to 1000 mm. It needs good drainage but tends to be short lived in cultivation. However, in spring you are rewarded with large fluffy golden yellow flowerheads with up to 80 minute sweetly scented flowers that provide a stark contrast to the bright green foliage.

Based on an article in the August 1997 issue of "Blandfordia", the newsletter of SGAP's North Shore Group.

For further information on Wattle day, its history and activities, see the web site of the Wattle Day Association.

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