Wattle—the emblem of our land

by Julia Robinson

Golden wattle. Image source: Australian National Botanic Gardens

September in Australia means that wattle trees are in bloom, fragrant and full of colour. The blossom can be any shade of yellow from pale cream to deep gold, depending on the species. The colours of the wattle are the inspiration for the green and gold, Australia’s national colours, officially proclaimed in 1984 (but used as sporting colours for much longer). Wattle blossom has long been emblematic of Australia; branches of wattle appeared on the Australian Coat of Arms in 1912, and in 1988 the profusely flowering golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was named as the national floral emblem. 

Its use as an emblem is most poignantly illustrated in recent times when Governor-General Sir William Deane took fourteen sprigs of wattle from trees at Government House in Canberra to Interlaken, Switzerland, on the occasion of a memorial service for fourteen young Australians who died there in a flash flood in 1999. Another notable example of the emblematic wattle is the portrait of Queen Elizabeth famously wearing a ‘wattle dress’ during her 1954 Australian tour. In a lighter vein the well-known Monty Python sketch of the 1970s, set in the uber-ocker Philosophy Department at the University of Woolloomoolloo, has a philosopher declare: ‘This here’s the wattle—the emblem of our land. You can stick it in a bottle or you can hold it in your hand.’

A wattled garden gate from a 15th century book, 'Tacuinum Sanitatis'.

Wattle is the common Australian name for native trees and shrubs of the genus Acacia. The word is a transferred use of the general English ‘wattle’ (first recorded more than a thousand years ago), a name for pliable sticks or branches used in building fences, walls, and roofs. In the process of wattling the wattles are woven horizontally through upright posts— and in the construction method wattle and daub the posts and wattles are then plastered with mud or clay. The process of wattling was used by early settlers in the Australian colonies, who found the long, flexible branches of Acacia trees ideal for the purpose of building huts and fences. The settlers named the trees they used wattle trees or wattles, a change in meaning noted by this early writer: ‘Very many species of acacia are found in Australia…. Locally, they are known by the name of wattles, from the slender twigs being used for that purpose.’ (1829, R. Mudie, Picture of Australia)

A wattle tree in full flower is a sight that traditionally raises the spirits and gladdens the Aussie heart, and it is not hard to understand the association of wattle blossom and patriotic sentiment.  The first evidence of the desire to create a celebratory Wattle Day appears in a Queensland newspaper in 1895, courtesy of the ‘Melbourne Gossip’ column:

This is the first day of ‘golden-haired September’, the flowering-time of wattle, mimosa, and all their yellow-tressed relations. The 14th of the month will be celebrated at the Austral Salon as ‘Wattle Day’…. Suburban roads at present are enlivened by carts, perambulators, wheelbarrows, &c., laden with the popular blossom. (Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 12 Sept.)

The idea of Wattle Day as an annual celebration of the blossoming of the wattle (with patriotic overtones) really took off in 1909 with the establishment of the Wattle Day League in Sydney:

Wattle Day badge

With a view of stimulating Australian national sentiment, and connecting it with love of our beautiful flora, we suggest the desirability of setting apart, throughout the Commonwealth, a day on which an Australian national flower—the wattle blossom—might be worn, and its display encouraged. Wattle might also be sown and planted on this day. (1909, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug.)

The following year saw Wattle Day celebrated in Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne. It became especially popular during the war years, 1914–18, when it began to be associated with fundraising for charity. Since the early part of the twentieth century Wattle Day has waxed and waned; not all States observed it and the date varied locally. National Wattle Day (1 September) was formally gazetted in 1992. Happy Wattle Day to all Australians at home and OS.

2 thoughts on “Wattle—the emblem of our land

  1. When I lived in Canberra around 1990, I realised that some wattles actually flower in winter – and they looked spectacular with their yellow in the clear, sunny days that Canberra sometimes served up. Not being a botanist, I’m not sure why 1 September was chosen for National Wattle Day. An article at http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2003/07/03/2578547.htm explains more about wattles and their flowering during winter (and at other times).

  2. Pingback: Thursday digest | Sandra's Garden

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