Why the wattle?
“Wattle is a symbol as broad and inclusive as its reach into history is long. Wattle grows in all parts of Australia, differing varieties flowering throughout the year. It links all our people, from our first to our newest at citizenship ceremonies. It touches all levels of society, from very early pioneers and World War I diggers, buried with a customary sprig of wattle, to victims of the Bali bombings and to our nation's best whom we honour with Order of Australia awards, the insignia of which is designed around the wattle flower. Wattle Day on the first day of Spring (Sept 1) is a national day of celebration in Australia. When the blaze of wattle lights up our landscape each year, let’s remember that the wattle is a symbol of our land that unites us all.”
Extract from Wattle Day by Terry Fewtrell, President, Wattle Day Association. ABC Radio National.
What do wattles mean to Australians?
- Australia’s national flower is the golden wattle.
- Australia's national colours were inspired by the golden wattle.
- The coat of arms of Australia features a spray of wattle in the background.
- Wattle Day on the first day of Spring (Sept 1) has been a national day of celebration in Australia since the early 1900's.
Part of our shared cultural history
- Wattle has been utilised by Aboriginal and Islander peoples for thousands of years.
- Wattle was an important pioneer species. Colonists used wattle branches in the construction of wattle and daub houses.
A symbol of our land
- Wattle is the largest genus of vascular plants in Australia, it is found in every state.
- Acacia (wattle) is a genus of Gondwanian origin, it has been in this land for 35 million years.
A symbol of Australia's best
- The Order of Australia medals, the highest honour an Australian civilian can receive, is designed around a golden wattle blossom.
- Many Australian Defence Force medals, such as the Long Service Medal include wattle in their design.
Part of Anzac history
- During the First World War sprigs of wattle were often sent with letters to soldiers on service abroad, as a reminder of the things they loved at home.
- Traditionally, wattle was placed with fallen Australian soldiers before burial.
- Wattle appears on many Australian Defence Force medals, colours, standards, guidons and banners.
- Wattle sprigs were sold to raise money during the First World War.
- Australia's first Anzac memorial was erected in Wattle Grove in Adelaide on Wattle Day in 1915.
- During the evacuation of Gallipoli, Chaplain Walter Dexter scattered wattle seeds as he left, he wrote: “If we have to leave here I intend that a bit of Australia shall be here”
Part of our sporting traditions
- All of Australia's national sporting teams wear wattle inspired green and gold uniforms.
A symbol of remembrance and new beginnings
Australia, the land of the wattle
Wattle or Acacia species are the largest genus in the Australian native flora, followed by eucalyptus. About 1,000 different species of wattles have been described for Australia, almost all of these have evolved only in Australia. Wattle is found in every state and territory, and virtually in every ecosystem in the country, from rainforests to mountain areas, to deserts, even sand along the beaches. Most Australians can recognise a wattle, at least when it is in flower, and it is said you can find a wattle in flower somewhere in Australia at any time of the year.
Source: Wattle Day Association, World Wide Wattle and Australian National Botanic Gardens
Aboriginal and Islander peoples use of the wattle
“Our wattles were a food source for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They fashioned its timber into hunting implements and weapons to add further to their diet. Wattle was a signpost for major events, such as the coming of the whales on the coast, the Bogong moths in the high country and the eels in the rivers. It enriched indigenous culture by being the raw material for dyes, perfumes, clap sticks and other instruments and, using knowledge acquired over centuries, it was applied in various ways as medicines.” Source: Terry Fewtrell, President, Wattle Day Association.
Boomerangs were traditionally fashioned from Mulga (Acacia aneura) or Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii). Returning boomerangs were made from the roots of trees which already had the desired shape. This is because the tips of a boomerang will break off when it hits the ground unless the grain of the wood follows the shape.
Great tracts of land are also now known by the Aboriginal names for the wattles that grow there – Myall, Mulga, Brigalow and Gidgee.
Traditional uses of Australian acacias by Suzette Searle, Wattle Day Association.
Aboriginal use of wattles by Norman Morrison, Australian National Botanic Gardens.
Wattle on the Wambuul NAIDOC celebrations in Dubbo, ABC Open Western Plains NSW.
One of Australia’s first national symbols
The earliest use of wattle as a national emblem can be traced back to Hobart in 1838 where wattle sprigs featured in the anniversary celebration of Abel Tasman's 1642 landing on the coast of Tasmania. Even before Federation in 1901, wattle began to appear as decoration on objects such as furniture and eulogised in literature, poetry, music and waltzes. This was a reflection of intensifying nationalism as the colonies considered their progress towards Federation. Wattle was seen as a uniquely Australian symbol, with no ties to Great Britain.
In 1899, the Australian cricket team were the first Australian national sporting team to wear wattle inspired green and gold uniforms. The first national Wattle Day was celebrated in 1910, and in 1913 Prime Minister Andrew Fisher recognised that there was so much interest and commitment to wattle as a symbol of this country, that he had the coat of arms of Australia changed to include a spray of wattle. In December of the same year, the first wattle blossom stamp was issued. The stamps cost one penny each. Wattle has also featured on Australia's currency, passports, and in our honours system, most notably on the Order of Australia.
Australia's national floral emblem
The golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) is Australia’s official floral emblem, it is representative of all Australian wattles. This beautiful species was proclaimed as our emblem on 1st September 1988 but it had been the unofficial floral emblem of Australia by popular choice since the 1800's.
Source: Wattle Day Association
Australia's national colours, the green and wattle
Green and gold (yellow) have been a part of Australia's history even before all the states came together to form the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901.
The first Australian national sporting team to wear green and gold was the Australian cricket team that toured England in 1899. Their uniforms were the traditional white, but the captain Joe Darling arranged for green caps, known today as the baggy green and green blazers detailed with a gold coat of arms. The new uniform was worn for the opening match of the Ashes series.
Previously, the team had no uniform cap or blazer colours but wore an assortment of club or state colours. The adoption of a new set of colours represented an attempt to transcend intercolonial (interstate) rivalries and unify the Australian team under one national banner. The Australian cricket team continued to use the colours thereafter, and in 1908 the colours were ratified as the official team colours for future Australian cricket teams.
During subsequent discussions by members of the New South Wales Cricket Association, the colours were reportedly referred to as ‘gum-tree green’ and ‘wattle-gold’.
The Australasian (combined Australian and New Zealand) Olympic team adopted ‘green and wattle’ in 1908, but not every team played in the colours. In fact, the team had no uniform when it left Australia, and there was no organised team departure. After the British organisers of the Games insisted on a uniform, the teams General Manager, William Hill, appealed to the Commonwealth Government for money to outfit the team. The referee reported that:
In the 1912 Olympics, an official Australian uniform was adopted for the first time: green vests with gold trimming, and white shorts with green and gold trimming.
Of the football codes, the Australian national Rugby League team wore green and gold blazers for the first Kangaroo Tour of England in 1908. The Australian national Soccer team first wore green and gold in 1924 with the Australia national Rugby Union team following in 1929 respectively.
In 1984, green and gold were formally recognised as the national colours of Australia with widespread community support.
Entwined with the Anzac legend
When Australian troops left for foreign shores, the wattle travelled in pockets, in kitbags, a reminder of home and the country they had left, and a keepsake to sustain them till they came home. It also became customary for mothers and sweethearts to enclose sprigs of wattle with letters to soldiers on service abroad. The sprigs were welcomed by soldiers at the front. A. H. Scott of the 4th Battery, Australian Field Artillery, recorded his feelings about the custom in his poem A Little Sprig of Wattle (1916). The first verse reads:
My mother's letter came to-day
And now my thoughts are far away,
For in between its pages lay
A little sprig of wattle.
Cardboard boxes filled with sprigs of pressed wattle were sent to Egyptian hospitals for distribution to wounded Anzacs. This soon became a tradition and, as the war progressed, wattle was despatched to wounded soldiers in France and England.
Wattle sprigs were sold to raise money during the First World War.
World War I diggers were sometimes buried with a customary sprig of wattle.
When the soldiers returned, they were honoured in Wattle Park in Melbourne, where the seed of the Lone Pine of Gallipoli was planted alongside many wattles.
Australia's first Anzac memorial was officially unveiled in South Australia on Wattle Day, 7 September 1915, just over four months after the first landings of Anzac forces on Gallipoli Peninsula. Named The Dardanelles Memorial, it was proposed by the national Wattle Day League, and originally located in an area called Wattle Grove in the South Parklands of Adelaide. Remnant seedlings of the original wattles still grow in Wattle Grove today.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the body of an unknown Australian soldier was recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. The Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall Of Memory at the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a slouch hat and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian Blackwood coffin.
Chaplain Walter Dexter was one of the last men to leave Gallipoli Peninsula on 20 December 1915. On learning of the evacuation, he wrote to his wife "My heart is very sore, not for the evacuation itself, for I know that is best, but for all the valuable lives that we have lost here." He spent his final days picking his way through the gullies and rudimentary cemeteries scattering wattle seed. "If we have to leave here I intend that a bit of Australia shall be here," he wrote. "I soaked the seed for about 20 hours, and they seem to be well and thriving."
War Stories Chaplain Walter Dexter
A symbol of our shared history
“Wattle has been the great witness to the whole of the Australian story. The latest science indicates that wattle has been in this land for 35 million years. It has therefore been part of the unfolding of Australian identity since that time, as the continental land mass started to drift north and take on its present outline. No wonder it is in our psyche when we seek to express most eloquently who we are.” Source: Terry Fewtrell, President, Wattle Day Association.
A symbol of unity
“Its presence in our landscape for so long may also be the key to its ability to unite us all. In simple terms, wattle has welcomed us all. It has welcomed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it has welcomed those who came with and followed James Cook and Arthur Phillip. It has welcomed the great wave of past World War II migrants. Last week it welcomed 200 new citizens at ceremonies in Canberra. It is in a sense the entre card of our land and the modern Australian nation.” Source: Terry Fewtrell, President, Wattle Day Association.
In the final verse of Banjo Paterson’s beloved poem We're All Australians Now, published in 1915 as an open letter to the troops at The Dardanelles, he refers to the wattle as a symbol of unity.
A symbol of our land and its natural beauty
The wattle is a living expression of our land. Because it springs organically from our land it bonds us as a people to that land. For Indigenous Australians, the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship and the spirit of country is central to the issues that are important to Indigenous people today.
Part of Australia's colonial history
Australian acacias were called ‘wattle’ because the early colonists included their thin branches and trunks with mud and clay in the construction of houses, a method known in Europe as ‘wattle and daub’. At the same time, its beauty was being hailed as a natural symbol of a new and vibrant nation.
A symbol of new beginnings
Wattle is also often worn at Australian citizenship ceremonies, where it is linked to ideas of new beginnings. National Wattle Day on 1 September is the first day of spring in Australia and heralds new growth. The wattle is a symbol of renewal that looks to the future.
At the heart of Australia's sporting traditions
The Wallabies, the Kangaroos, the Jillaroos, the Wallaroos, the Pearls, the Socceroos, the Matildas, the Diamonds, the Boomers and Opals, the Australian Cricket team, the Southern Stars, the Kookaburras, the Hockeyroos, the Steelers and the Australian Olympic and Paralympic Teams all wear wattle inspired green and gold uniforms.
As cyclist Cadel Evans rode toward his ‘Cadelebration’ in Federation Square at Melbourne following his success in Le Tour de France 2011, he carried a small bunch of wattle on his handlebars.
A symbol of Australian excellence
We honour our nation's best with the Order of Australia awards, the insignia and ribbon of which is designed around the wattle blossom. Wattle also decorates many other national honours including the National Emergency Medal and the Australian Defence Force Long Service Medal.
A symbol of Australian resilience
Wattles are usually the first plants to germinate after a bushfire and are seen as a symbol of resilience, renewal, of people starting again after adversity–the Australian spirit. The wattle's example of resilience has become part of our Australian tradition, from our Indigenous Peoples, our colonialists, and through to our forebears of Federation and the Depression and then post-war migrants.
Acacias in Australia probably evolved their fire resistance about 20 million years ago when fossilised charcoal deposits show a large increase, indicating that fire was a factor even then
A symbol of remembrance
Traditionally, Australians have used wattle in memory of Australians who have died overseas.
In 1999, Governor-General Sir William Deane stood by Switzerland’s Saxeton River Gorge with the families and friends of Australians who died in a canyoning expedition and threw 14 sprigs of wattle into the waters. He said the wattle signified that a small part of Switzerland had become and would always be part of Australia.
In 2002, then Prime Minister John Howard urged people to turn to a national symbol of unity, the wattle, during the day of mourning on Sunday for the lives lost in the Bali terrorist attack, he said:
As a simple unifying tribute, could I encourage the wearing of a piece of wattle during the day and also where possible, the planting of wattle seeds as a quiet personal gesture of remembrance and reflection.
In 2014 mourners placed wattle sprigs on a wattle wreath during a national memorial service for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne.
Again in 2015, for the memorial service to mark the anniversary of the MH17 Ukraine air disaster, those who attended pinned sprigs of wattle on a large wattle wreath.
Since 1992 National Wattle Day has been on September 1 in all of Australia's States and Territories. Before then, Australians in different States celebrated wattle day on different days between August and September.
The first celebration of Wattle Day was held on 1 September 1910 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Unlike many other national celebrations at the time, Wattle Day was seen as purely Australian, with no ties to Great Britain. NSW changed the date to August 1 in 1916 because that allowed the Red Cross to use the earlier flowering Cootamundra Wattle rather than Golden Wattle sprigs to sell on Wattle Day. Wattle sprigs were sold by the Red Cross to raise money for the war effort throughout the First World War.
Today, Wattle Day is mainly observed in Australian primary schools, where students participate in activities such as planting of wattle trees or other native species on school grounds. Wattle Day is also seen by some as an alternate Australia Day, a national day that is inclusive of all Australians.
2010 was the centenary of the celebration of the first official Wattle Day in Australia in 1910.
Australia’s Wattle Day history
The wattle captures a feeling for country and a spirit of place
Much like the Canadian maple leaf and New Zealand silver fern, the appeal of the wattle is not first and foremost to the idea of the nation, but to the idea of place. In John Williamson's beloved song Cootamundra Wattle, he sings about a farmer reminiscing of days gone by. The farmer sees the July wattle blossoms as an old familiar friend, a reminder of his childhood and simpler times.
For many Australian's even the fragrance of wattle reminds them of home, wherever they may be. In Rudyard Kipling's poem Lichtenberg, an Australian soldier who is stationed in South Africa during the Boer War smells the blossoms a Golden Wattle and is reminded of his home in New South Wales. The final verse reads:
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!
Wattleseed is one of those iconic central Australian bush foods that is used in everything from pavlova to bread to wattleseed ale. It flavours sweet dishes such as ice-creams, sorbets, mousse, yoghurt, cheesecakes and whipped cream. It is delicious in pancakes and goes well with bread. Australian Acacia was traditionally used as food by Aboriginal Australians and eaten either green (and cooked) or dried (and milled to a flour) to make bush bread or seedcakes. They cooked this often in ovens made in a hole in the ground using hot coals and hot rocks. Ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills survived on bush bread for some time after they ran out of rations due to the death of their camels.
Wattle and Australian art
Australian artists have often drawn inspiration from the bright yellow blossoms of the wattle. Artists such Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Albert Namatjira, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Fed Williams, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and May Gibbs have all featured the wattle in their art. Wattle is also represented in traditional and contemporary Aboriginal Australian art often as food, or as a bush medicine plant used as part of traditional indigenous healing. Renowned artists such as Gloria Petyarre, Thanakupi (which means ‘wattle flower’ in the Thaynakwith language), Fabrianne Peterson Nampitjinpa and Paddy Bedford have all incorporated the wattle into their work. In Parliament House Canberra, wattle marquetry adorns the wall of the main foyer and the panel behind the speaker's chair in the House of Representatives.
The wattle featured in a Monty Python sketch. ; )
In the famous ‘Bruces sketch‘ from Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969), the wattle was used in an irreverent way.
This here’s the wattle,
the emblem of our land.
You can stick it in a bottle,
you can hold it in your hand.