Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Group
29 August 1995 (updated 19 August 1997)
The national floral emblem
A brief history of Wattle Day
Wattle Day? Why?
What to do on Wattle Day?
A role for the Federal Government
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.
Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha), the national floral
emblem, is a beautiful plant which grows in south-eastern
Australia, notably around the ACT, in southern NSW, in the Adelaide
Hills and widely in Victoria. There is a large stand situated about
twelve kilometres distant from Parliament house, on Mt Jerrabombera
just outside the ACT. Golden Wattles are variable in size and take
the form of large shrubs or small trees depending on their
location. There is also some variation in leaf width across the
natural range of the species. In the Adelaide Hills, for example,
the leaf is much wider than on the ACT variety [although note that
mature wattles do not have true leaves; they are flattened leaf
stalks]. Large flower size, on the other hand, is a characteristic
of all Golden Wattles. The flowering season is late winter to early
spring and so can be suitably associated with 1 September. Like
many other members of the family, Golden Wattle has delicately
scented blossom. Lifespan for the species is not long, only about
Wattle-like plants found overseas are often spiny, they tend to
have less spectacular flowers and are known as mimosas. In
Australia the Acacias are our largest plant genus with
about 750 species. The Australian name wattle is an early
colonial term which relates to the use of the springy stems as
wattles (i.e., interlaced rods) in wattle-and-daub huts.
Aboriginal people have a strong traditional relationship with a
number of wattle species, which have been used by them for food,
fuel, medicine and various woodcrafts.
Golden Wattle is a relatively hardy species and has been planted
in all States. Frost-resistant varieties can be chosen for the
inland. For example, Canberra's Golden Wattles are unaffected by
heavy frosts. Some care may be needed in order to prevent invasion
of local bushland in, say, Western Australia where the species is
not endemic, which is why the practice of distributing A.
pycnantha seed on Wattle Day may not always be welcome. Such
invasion by another popular species, Cootamundra Wattle (A.
baileyana), has occurred in the ACT.
The first official move towards recognising
wattle as a national symbol took place on 19 April 1984, when the
Governor-General proclaimed Australia's national colours to be
green and 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. While Golden Wattle had long
enjoyed that status informally - note its prominent place within
the Commonwealth Coat of Arms dating from 1912 (frontispiece) and
on the insignia of the Order of Australia - it had taken strong
supporters of the emblem, notably Maria Hitchcock and also the
Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP), to persuade the
Federal Government to grant official recognition in the
Another aim of Maria Hitchcock and her fellow enthusiasts was to
revive Wattle Day, which traditionally had been celebrated on the
first day of Spring in several States although 1 August was the
accepted date in NSW. At her urging, and with growing support from
others, the Commonwealth and the States agreed in 1992 that Wattle
Day would henceforth be the same in all States and Territories,
that is, the first day of September. This was a necessary step
towards reviving Wattle Day as a national
Although wattle was associated with Australia from very early
days, its significance increased around the time of Federation. The
first celebration of Wattle Day was held on 1 September 1910 in
Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. 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.
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. 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
In the 1920s and 1930s, Wattle Day continued to be celebrated,
still associated with raising money for charity but also featuring
special activities for children and ceremonies to mark the
occasion. Maria Hitchcock states in her book (Wattle, AGPS
1991, held in the Parliamentary Library) that Wattle Day was an
annual event in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, SA and Tasmania but does
not seem to have been recognised in Western Australia or the
Northern Territory. Wattle Day was apparently a strong event in NSW
schools. Unfortunately, the tradition was virtually lost after
World War II. It was only in the 1980s, 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.
It has been fortuitous that, just when the revival of Wattle Day
seemed to be losing its way, the ACT Division of the Red Cross
decided to take it on for fundraising purposes. The initial ACT Red
Cross Wattle Day campaign launch was in 1994. Another welcome
decision has come from the State and Territory cancer societies and
councils to hold Daffodil Day on a Friday in late August, not on
Wattle Day as previously.
Many Australians are uneasy with sentimental displays of
national feeling so it is reasonable to ask why the traditional
Wattle Day should be revived. After all, if this is a genuine folk
day, why did it lapse when Anzac Day has not?
The best arguments for Wattle Day need to take into account the
present economic and cultural insecurity experienced by a
significant number of Australians which needs to be balanced by a
celebration of hope and common purpose.
The economic insecurity largely comes from Australia opening
itself up to competition with the world in recent years and was
less prevalent in the comfortable 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The need
for increased competitiveness is more-or-less a consensus position
of Australian politics, but many people have been adversely
affected, at least in the short term.
Another, often unspoken problem is a combination of cultural
confusion and erosion. Our children (and the rest of us) have
always tried to ignore the chronic cultural disorientation of being
'Down Under', especially in regard to the important national
holidays. To illustrate the point, our Easter is full of symbols of
early Spring (egg, young rabbits, chicks, etc.) but the symbolism
and the season have no correspondence in the Southern Hemisphere.
Australia's Christmas is very mixed up, with a warmly wrapped
'Santa' and his sleigh now commonly teamed with waratah and holly
leaf decorations on supermarket windows! Australia Day itself is
seen by some as a NSW-dominated celebration, as largely an
opportunity for a multicultural display, or as a marking of the
invasion of the continent by Europeans. The Queen's Birthday
Holiday has become controversial. The first day of January marks
the start of Federation but is also New Year's Day. There is no
national Labor Day. Children know something about an overseas May
Day, the may queen and the may pole of the European high Spring but
there is no equivalent national Spring festival here. The only
national folk day of universal acceptance is Anzac Day.
An example of cultural erosion affecting young and old is the
increasing foreign sell-off of traditional Australian company
If we add to the above the invasion of American culture, now
accelerating through television and computer networks, together
with national confusion over whether we are or should be Asian or
Asianised, it can be argued that a celebration of 'Australianness'
symbolised by wattle, the popular national floral emblem (which is
not for sale) combined with a celebration of the coming of Spring
could be a very special occasion every year. An added attraction is
that Wattle Day dates back more than eighty years and is a part of
Wattle and Wattle Day can symbolise virtually anything we want,
but they relate generally to Spring, being Australian, the
Australian environment, and history. Spring has many positive
values such as optimism, bounty and abundance, reliability, colour,
new life and so on. We can celebrate our 'Australianness' on Wattle
Day in quite a different way from Anzac Day, which in recalling
past wars glorifies Australian qualities of courage and mateship.
Wattle Day, by contrast, looks forward (to Spring)
and can celebrate the nation's undoubted qualities of good humour,
fairness, generosity, informality and democracy.
Wattle Day should be a simple, sentimental and uncomplicated
occasion - the last thing wanted is long, boring ceremonies. In the
ACT the Day will certainly be marked by Red Cross badges, book
marks and perhaps other merchandise for fundraising promotion by
that organisation. This is certain to raise the local profile of
the day for adults, and for many this would make it equivalent in
status to Poppy Day, Daffodil Day or Red Nose Day. Wattle Day can
rise above these in significance, however. For example, Wattle Day
could become a favoured occasion for conferral of citizenship.
Another possible emphasis is on selling wattles and other
Australian plants for home and public gardens; this is already in
train at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, which has a
Wattle Week associated with Wattle Day. Wattle Day could thus be
associated with water conservation and better Australian garden
design, plant selection, etc., to develop what is still quite
primitive use of native plants for this purpose.
The traditions and sentiments surrounding Wattle Day can
translate very well to young children and primary schools. Up to
now, education authorities' approach to the revived Wattle Day has
been generally disappointing, the Day being left to busy school
principals to decide whether to celebrate or not. So as not to
intrude on already packed school calendars, it is important that
Wattle Day festivities in the schools last only one day, and
not have a heavy curriculum input over, say, a
week. Some suggested activities for primary schools on Wattle Day
- decorating classrooms
- plays/poetry readings/songs
- the teaching of Wattle Day history
- folk dancing
- planting Golden Wattle or other native species on school
- just having a party
- art, posters, etc.
Perhaps each year could feature a new theme such as history,
environment, flower arranging and so on. If all this seems a little
too much for some boys, perhaps they could be reminded that their
sporting heroes carry the colours of wattle!
Traditionally, Wattle Day was strongly associated with planting
Australian trees and shrubs. This activity has been largely taken
over by conservation initiatives such as Landcare, Greening
Australia, Arbour Week and so on. In that case, perhaps Wattle Day
could concentrate on the planting of Golden Wattle itself; the
species is short-lived and needs to be replaced fairly often. Also,
many Australians young and old would not be able to recognise the
national floral emblem because it is not as commonly planted as it
could be. In the tropics, Golden Wattles could be replaced by more
suitable Acacia species.
Meaningful support for Wattle Day at Federal level would not
have to be costly, and
would mainly involve promoting and distributing literature, and
seeing to coordination of related activities.
Wattle, the book written by Maria Hitchcock, has been
well produced and needs a much wider circulation. It has often been
suggested that the Commonwealth could donate a copy to each primary
school library nationwide. Another possible initiative at Federal
level could be to commission a similar book meant to appeal to the
very young. This could perhaps be given to each child in a
particular year of his/her education. The Commonwealth could also
distribute carefully prepared Wattle Day kits to schools, in
cooperation with State education bodies.
Wattle Day seems to lend itself particularly well to poetry. The
Federal Government could hold a regular poetry competition
nationwide with an attractive prize.
Citizenship ceremonies were mentioned earlier as being most
suitable for Wattle Day. The Government could encourage such timing
so that it becomes a tradition.
Lastly, Wattle Day can be made more closely associated with the
Order of Australia. For example, past newspaper publicity for
entries on 'What it is to be an Australian', in the name of the
Order of Australia Association, could have been more closely linked
with Wattle Day. One can even conceive of new awards of the Order
being made on - Wattle Day.
Happy Wattle Day!