“In spring, the most delicate feathery yellow of plumes and plumes and plumes and trees and bushes of wattle, as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here, in the Australian bush.”– D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
Today, is the first day of Australian Spring. A time in which the sun shines, the clouds part to reveal the clean blue sky, and most importantly, when the flowers begin to bloom. Among the first to bloom is the Australian Golden Wattle. A rather unique flora, with fuzzy yellow flowers instead of the typical tulip, daisy, rose or lily shapes you find with other flora. Along with a profuse fragrance, these flowers are a sight to behold during the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring.
Nonetheless, to appreciate Wattle Day, we must first ask a few questions. What is our Floral symbol? And how did it come to be?
Firstly, the origins of Australia’s Floral Emblem can date back to Tasmania, 1838, roughly fifty years after European settlement on the island. A documented and symbolic report can be considered the earliest or one of the earliest documented cases of the Wattle being used in a symbolic manner. The True Colonist, Van Diemen’s Land Political Diespatch, and Agricultural and Commercial Advertiser from the 7th of December 1838, detailed a story of floral buttonholes worn during celebrations on the 1st of December that same year. The Surveyor at the time, Sir George Frankland, was referred in the report in a sarcastically manner:
There seemed to be a general determination to adhere to Mr Frankland’s national emblem, and in spite of the silver wattle refusing to put forth its blossoms out of season to meet the views of that exquisite naturalist, the defect was ingeniously supplied by uniting the blossom of the black wattle stripped of its foliage to a sprig of what is generally termed silver wattle (acacia lanceolata)
Perhaps, what could be surmised as an interesting factoid reported by the newspaper was that some of the people who were celebrating, wore leaves of English Oak along with the Wattle, and that others wore the oak leaves alone.
However, why did Australia choose the Wattle as its emblem? Well, we can point our fingers at the Australian Natives’ Association, whom of which played a major role in this, according to the historian Libby Robin.
“Impressed by Canada’s recent successful promotion of the Maple Leaf, the ANA (Australian Natives’ Association) campaigned to make the Wattle a flower for the federating nation of Australia.”
The Association was directly involved in the Wattle Blossom League, which originally began in South Australia specifically for “Australian-born women and the wives of members of the Australian Natives’ Association.” The League’s aims were explicitly those of nurturing patriotism, evidence of such nurturing can be found from their inaugural meeting in May 1890, declaring:
“To promote a national patriotic sentiment
amongst the women of Australia, to interest
women in the work of the Australian Natives’
Association, and to encourage in the
household among a rising generation a spirit
of Australian patriotism.“
Naturalist Archibald Campbell, a co-editor of The Emu and author of the historically influential Nests and Eggs of Australian Birds, was a founding member of the Victorian Wattle Club (Later League) in 1899. Mr Campbell, in 1909 called for a National Wattle Day and was involved in the establishment of the national organisation, the Australian Wattle Day League, in 1911. The first celebrations of “Wattle Day” occurred in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in 1910 and following in Western Australia and Queensland in 1912.
These were the early days of Federation, where the sense of nationalism and patriotism was strong, in its prime and providing a happy view for the future. In those early days, Arbor Days, along with Bird and Wattle Days, became rather popular in Australian schools. However, the First World War continued that sense of patriotism and nationalism, reinforcing the sentiment for God, King and Country, through the usage of the Wattle.
Notwithstanding, the Waratah (Today’s state floral symbol of New South Wales) was also used during these formative years of Federation and the subsequent World War. The Waratah was not chosen as Australia’s floral symbol due to its limited distribution around Australia, only growing on the central east coast of New South Wales whereas the Golden Wattle grows all around Australia.
However the economist and botanist R.T. Baker proposed the Waratah’s endemism to the Australian continent made it a better choice than the Wattle, as well as the prominence of its flowers. The South Australian Evening News supported Mr Baker’s bid, but it was to no avail. Though the Waratah would be used informally for the state until it was proclaimed as the states official floral emblem in 1962 by the State Governor Sir Eric Woodward.
Withal, as both flora symbolised home and a longing for it. A sense of duty to defend and prove its honour around the world. A connection of this can be visible in many wattle-themed songs during the time. “There are lilies white and roses red”, went the song Golden Wattle composed in the first decade after Federation by the Adelaide Primrose.
Songs such as Dreams of Aussie evokes a young man’s fancy during those times, and may as well today:
“There stands a lad true and loving
Steering the ship back home
Dreaming of someone he lov’d, oh so true,
Awaiting him over the foam.
Dreaming of sunny Australia
Dreaming of someone sweet.
Dreaming of Wattle and Waratahs
And the girl he longs to meet.“
In another piece of music from the time, the sentiments of Joe Slater’s Wattle Day march song, and twostep echo those of the earlier Tasmanians who had combined the symbols of the old country and new with their floral sprigs of oak and wattle almost a century beforehand.
“Let us celebrate our Wattle Day
With Rose, Thistle and the Shamrock green,
May our Golden blossom forever be seen
Oh carry me back to sunny Australia, and dear old Wattle Day.“
The Wattle has been there during our darkest days. Among that of the first World War. The Wattle proved to be a useful patriotic symbol that the founders of the South Australian Wattle Blossom League had hoped for. Badges with mottos from the Australian Natives’ Association like “Our own for our own”, with a showing of a spray of Wattle, were sold to raise funds and to demonstrate publicly the wearer’s support for Australia’s war involvement.
“In the dark days of the Great War of 1914 – 1918,
The Golden Wattle was a patriotic symbol of the nation.
Images of Acacia pycnantha appeared on all kinds of ephemera
from badges to cards, which were sold to raise funds for the war effort.“
– Historian Kerrie Handasyde
After the World Wars, the sentiment for a day to celebrate the Wattle never faded away. There were many pushes to set a national date for a Wattle Day during the mid-twentieth century. However, a call from the Australian Plants Society member, Maria Hitchcock and others in the bicentenary celebration of European settlement in 1988, a call for a coordinated National Wattle Day date had been petered out.
By proclamation of Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen during the Bicentennial Celebration on the 19th of August, 1988, the Golden Wattle was officially made to be Australia’s national floral emblem, along with a formal ceremony held in the National Botanic Garden on the 1st of September in that same year, in which Ms Hitchcock was a guest of the government.
Emboldened by such a proclamation, Maria Hitchcock and many supporters for a National Day for the Wattle, campaigned for the day of celebration to be made official. And on the 23rd of June, 1992, Governor-General Bill Hayden declared that on the “1st of September in each year shall be observed as ‘National Wattle Day’ throughout Australia and in the external Territories of Australia.“
Including a factoid, that during Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Commonwealth Tour in 1954, the Australian government gifted her the Wattle Spray Brooch. Crafted from gold and diamonds, this brooch depicts the Wattle, Australia’s national floral symbol as well as the blossom of a Tea Tree, keeping in line with the original history of the Wattle being worn in buttonholes by the Tasmanians featuring English Oak and Wattles, further bringing the old world with the new. Her Majesty wears the Wattle Spray Brooch during her visits to Australia and during Wattle Day as Australia’s Sovereign.
The day has yet to be celebrated as a National Holiday on the same level as the Queens Birthday, Australia Day, ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, however, it should be seen as an important note in Australia’s history and culture.