The wattle has long been more than just a plant — it has also been a source of food, medicine, timber and, more recently, a symbol of national pride.
- The first national Wattle Day was held 110 years ago today
- It has been promoted as an alternative to Australia Day
- Supporters say it reflects the importance of wattle in Australian history and culture
Indigenous Australians still use wattle flower and gum for a variety of purposes, while the golden blossoms also inspired early European settlers.
Not only was wattle chosen as the nation’s floral emblem and selected to feature on the coat of arms, but it even sparked its own day to celebrate the newly federated nation.
The first national Wattle Day occurred exactly 110 years ago on September 1, 1910 — the start of spring — in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
The occasion is still marked by some groups, including the Wattle Day Association, which believes it has the potential to replace Australia Day as it grows in significance and popularity.
But, like Australia Day, Wattle Day is not without its own controversy.
One of the first wattle-themed events held in Australia was the Wattle Blossom Social in Adelaide in 1889, which was put on by an anti-immigration nationalist group, and led to the creation of the Wattle Day League.
In more recent years, however, Wattle Day has also been associated with progressive causes, including conservation, and has been championed by some of the supporters of the “change the date” campaign.
“I think it is perfectly placed to be a day that all Australians can celebrate all that we have in this country.”
Wattle Day’s fall and rise
Support for Wattle Day grew throughout World War I, with sprigs sold to raise money for organisations such as the Red Cross.
Wattles shrouded Australia’s first monument marking World War I when it was unveiled by the governor-general on September 7, 1915.
The Dardanelles Memorial in Adelaide’s southern parklands was surrounded by 140 wattle trees, before it was moved in 1940.
Interest in Wattle Day increased in the 1920s and 1930s — farmers became angry as people trespassed onto their properties to cut down wattle trees in order to sell their flowers.
But the event’s appeal faded with the passing of time and it was not until the lead-up to the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet that interest was revived.
Green and gold officially because Australia’s national colours in 1984 and, on September 1, 1988, the governor-general declared golden wattle Australia’s national floral emblem.
Four years later, in 1992, September 1 was officially proclaimed national Wattle Day, and the Wattle Day Association was formed in Canberra in 1998.
Dr Searle said Wattle Day now had more significance than ever because of what it represented, and said the day was currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
The association has organised landmarks from Hobart to Townsville to glow gold tonight for Wattle Day.
“We’re encouraging and we’re working with national institutions and landmarks to light up at night to wish everyone a happy Wattle Day and sort of lift our spirits with that golden glow in the sky,” Dr Searle said.
Links to nationalism
The idea for the original 1889 Wattle Blossom Social function — the precursor to Wattle Day — came from Will Sowden, who went on to become president of the Wattle Blossom League.
But Sowden was also vice-president of the Adelaide branch of the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA).
The ANA was made up of Australian-born white men who promoted the White Australia Policy and opposed immigration from non-European countries.
It closed its last branch in 2007, and a new Canberra-based organisation with the same name was formed in 2015.
It continues to advocate for some of the principles of the original and has expressed support for Wattle Day.
But Dr Searle said the original ANA’s links to Wattle Day should not be overstated.
“They saw a lot to be proud of in Australia and the wattle was a symbol of [that],” she said.
“They were also very proud of being Australian when we were a British dominion.”
A bloom in popularity
Dr Searle said the growing interest in Wattle Day reflected broader growing interest in the wattle as a national symbol.
Each of Australia’s new banknotes features a different variety of wattle, topped by the soon-to-be released $100 note which prominently includes the golden wattle.
The flower appears on homewares, on clothes and on Australia’s new “national brand” that is said to resemble the coronavirus.
Wattle seed is enjoying renewed popularity as a cooking ingredient.
The Adelaide City Council has allocated $43,000 this financial year to design and re-establish a wattle grove in the parklands.
“Wattle’s just everywhere,” Dr Searle said.
A new Australia Day?
The Wattle Day Association promotes September 1 as an alternative to Australia Day.
“I think Australia Day is not a day all Australians can relate to or celebrate,” Dr Searle said.
“I think there are a lot of alternatives that people have put forward and I think national Wattle Day has a lot going for it.”
Brooke Prentis, an Aboriginal Christian leader, believes January 26 should be recognised as a “day of mourning”.
She said NAIDOC Week should “celebrate the world’s oldest continuing culture” and that Wattle Day should become the country’s national day.
“If you wanted a national holiday then I think it is Wattle Day,” Ms Prentis said.