The first day of spring is the little-known but uniquely Australian celebration – National Wattle Day.
Wattles have always been part of our country’s landscape and the lives of its people. For Indigenous Australians, wattle trees were a source of food, medicines and wood for many different utensils and weapons. Indigenous peoples of Australia soaked the gum of the golden wattle in water and honey to produce a sweet, toffee-like substance. The tannin from the bark was known for its antiseptic properties.
Colonial settlers cultivated the golden wattle using the bark in the tanning industry, the gum for glues and the blossom for its honey.
Wattle is ideally suited to withstand Australia’s droughts, winds and bushfires. The resilience of wattle represents the spirit of the Australian people.
Although wattle was associated with Australia from very early days, its significance increased around the time of Federation. The golden wattle was unofficially accepted as the national floral emblem to mark Federation in 1901.
There had been much debate as to whether Wattle or the Waratah should be Australia’s national floral emblem but, by around 1910, consensus finally favoured Wattle since it grows throughout the nation whereas the Waratah is limited in distribution. The first celebration of Wattle Day was held on 1 September 1910 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Early Wattle Day activities included planting of wattle trees in school grounds, school lessons on botany, street decorations of wattle blossom, and wearing sprigs of wattle, often sold for charity.
In 1912 the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Andrew Fisher MP, suggested that the wattle be included as a decoration surrounding the Commonwealth Coat of Arms
Plans in 1913 to proclaim the wattle a national emblem and celebrate Wattle Day nationally were interrupted by World War I, but wattle remained a strong symbol of patriotism during the war years. Sprigs of wattle and colourful badges were sold on Wattle Day to raise money for the Red Cross.
Around this time wattle was officially introduced to representations of the Commonwealth coat-of-arms. And in December of the same year, the first wattle blossom stamp was issued.
NSW changed the date to 1 August in 1916 because that allowed the Red Cross to use the earlier flowering and more familiar Cootamundra Wattle rather than Golden Wattle. This was done because wattle blooms profusely about this time in the surrounds of Sydney. However, the change led to some confusion which persists to this day.
Wattle took on a new significance in the war years as a potent symbol of home for military personnel serving overseas, and as a means of raising money for organisations such as the Red Cross. Beautifully designed Wattle Day badges as well as wattle sprigs were sold.
Wattle was sent overseas in letters during the war and was presented to homecoming service men and women at what must have been an emotional moment.
Wattle Day continued to be celebrated during the 1920s and 1930s, although apparently not in Western Australia or the Northern Territory. The day became largely associated with schools and tree planting, the aftermath of the War perhaps softening some of the patriotic fervour characteristics of the early days of Federation.
For some reason, World War II is not recorded as having greatly revived the tradition of Wattle Day; wattle does not seem to have been widely used as a symbol of Australia in that time of national crisis. At any rate, following the war, Wattle Day was allowed to slowly die as a tradition.
It was not until the 1980s that national pride and symbolism re-emerged (for example, the boxing kangaroo).
It was only in that era, in prospect of the Bicentennial and in sympathy with rising national concern for Australian flora and the environment generally, did a suggestion to revive Wattle Day receive attention.
A significant milestone was the proclamation by the Governor-General on 19 April 1984 of the wattle’s green leaves and gold blossom as the national colours. This settled a long dispute as to whether the colours should be green or blue together with gold. This was an important step, because blue and gold had also traditionally vied for this status and there had been some confusion and personal preference involved. Blue can still be accepted as an unofficial national colour because blue represents a clear Australian sky as the background to flowering wattle.
On 1 September 1988, Golden Wattle was declared officially as Australia’s national floral emblem. Golden Wattle had long enjoyed that status informally, as can be seen by its prominent place within the Commonwealth Coat of Arms dating from 1912. Also, a single wattle flower is the emblem of the Order of Australia.
Continuing confusion over the actual date a Wattle Day required a long-awaited agreement among the Commonwealth and States to unify Australia’s Wattle Day as the First Day of Spring (1st September) in every State and Territory. This took place in 1992.
The official Wattle Day Association suggests a number of reasons for celebrating wattle as our emblem. Like Australians themselves, wattles are diverse – there are nearly 1000 different species of all shapes and sizes, found all over our land from the outback to the tropics, yet all recognisable as part of the same family.
They’re resilient and hardy, with many species brightening our winter or welcoming the spring with their golden blossoms, and are among the first plants to regenerate after a bushfire. What’s more, wattle isn’t tied to a particular historical event or any one group of people – it’s a unifying symbol that all Australians can share.
So, on 1 September, how about wearing a wattle sprig or green and gold to celebrate?