‘Shall we ever see a Wattle Bloom day in Australia?’ mused F.M. in the Argus in 1889. ‘Who Knows? We have yet to establish all our national festivals. In worship or rejoicing we are hitherto imitative or inane’.
Over a century and a quarter later, the touchstones of our identity—be they statues, flags or festivals—can seem as divisive as they are unifying. While the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) has been Australia’s official national floral emblem since 1988, its association with national identity has a much longer history. The blooming of various wattle species has long marked Melbourne’s seasonal transitions from deep winter to early spring, and an annual Wattle Day appeal was first celebrated in Melbourne on 5 September 1911 to foster patriotic sentiment (a Wattle Day had been held the year before in Sydney on 1 September).
Wattle Day was in fact superimposed on former seasonal appreciations of the flower: the Field Naturalists’ Club had long held outings to view wattle blooms around Melbourne, and a Wattle Club was granted railway concessions in 1899 for its excursions.
At the height of Wattle Day’s appeal, people wore sprigs of wattle in their lapels and hats, and streets were decorated with wattle branches. Indeed the annual gathering of wattle blossom often saw the rampant destruction of trees at Diamond Creek, Heidelberg and Olinda.
In 1912 Wattle Day became associated in Melbourne with charitable collections, and women dressed in white sold blossoms and badges in city streets. From the 1920s it was managed by the Children’s Welfare Association, with proceeds distributed through the Lord Mayor’s Fund. On Button Days, including Wattle Day and Children’s Flower Day, children proudly displayed commemorative badges that demonstrated their involvement in fundraising efforts.
Ellen J. Tremlett’s Wattle Day poem summarises the sentiment:
Oh! the fragrant scent of Wattle bloom, all adown the busy street,
Heigho! sweet bunches for Charity’s sake, list! fair vendors do cry.
Oh! yellow blooms are nodding, and such dainty flow’rets greet,
To repeated calls for Charity, of your pity, buy—oh—buy !
The wattle has often featured in other debates over national identity and symbolism that flare up at particular historical moments. One loyal ‘Austral-Briton’ advocated widespread planting of the British oak by ‘all who have power over the soil’ in commemoration of the 1863 royal marriage, an ideal symbol of Britain’s power and renown. In the 1870s, some saw the evergreen Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) as a more suitable street tree, umbrageous and ornamental, while others despised the ‘ragged appearance’ of wattles growing in the reserve on the south side of Flinders Street from Swanston to Spring streets. By the turn of the century the movement towards native plants was strengthened not only by growing awareness of the variety and properties of native flora, but by nationalistic sentiments. The ubiquity of ‘long rows of miserable, leafless, stunted elms’ was scorned in a letter to the Age in 1902.
In every street, in all suburbs, what do we see? Elms, and elms, and elms. Why not, if not all evergreens, at least alternate them with the deciduous trees? Few people know enough of our native trees to be aware of the fact, but there are not many finer trees than the Gippsland mahogany … and what about the silky oak … and the sugar gum … ? For goodness sake, let us have at the very least a little variety, and combine it with a little patriotism.
Politician Agar Wynne was enthusiastic about planting bright flowering indigenous trees on St Kilda Road, wishing to showcase for visitors the wattle, flowering gum and jacaranda in the same way that the Japanese cultivated the flowering peach and cherry tree.
Joe Slater’s 1920s Wattle Day march song and two-step praised the wattle as a national icon, but saw it as an accompaniment to rather than a substitute for British symbolism.
With the Rose, Thistle, and the Shamrock green,
May our Golden blossom for ever be seen
Almost a century later, perhaps it’s time for the imitation and irrelevance of old symbols—however much they have been the rootstocks of the nation—to blossom into a mature home-grown cultivar in which all Australians can rejoice.