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illust: Marion Westmacott ©ANBGGolden Wattle

Acacia pycnantha

(plant family: Mimosaceae)

Floral Emblem of Australia

Golden Wattle photoBackground

Joseph Banks (1743-1820), English naturalist and patron of science on Captain James Cook's Endeavour voyage, 1768-70, detected in the flora of New South Wales an apparent absence of plant foods acceptable to European taste. In 1786 Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales, and Banks advised him of the need to take seeds and plants to provide grain, fruit and vegetables for the penal colony. To supply food Phillip took wheat and corn from England. He called at Rio de Janiero and obtained:

At the Cape of Good Hope he acquired quince, apple, pear, strawberry, fig, bamboo, sugar, oak and myrtle plants. Oak and myrtle, the earliest decorative plants introduced to the new colony, mark the beginning of a veritable flood of exotic species as settlers sought to assuage their homesickness with the familiar plants of English horticulture.

Bank's recognition of the rich and unfamiliar nature of the Australian flora stimulated lively curiosity in European botanists and plant collectors, and numerous dried specimens, seeds and plants were sent from the colony to herbaria and horticultural enthusiasts in Europe. Notable botanists, mainly British, German and French, visited Australia to collect specimens of plants mostly new to science.

For most of the nineteenth centuary few settlers in Australia displayed any interest in the local flora, either intrinsically or horticulturally, preferring gardens of exotic plants. Larger landholders exploited the unusual effects of native plants like Norfolk Island Pine and Bunya Pine, but invariably these were established in grand gardens of predominantly exotic species.

Patriotism

In the spirit of national and patriotic fervour generated by the approach of Federation, achieved in 1901, public interest in the Australian environment was awakened and the search for a national identity brought the desire for national symbols.

Archibald Campbell founded a Wattle Club in Victoria in 1899 to promote a Wattle Day demonstration every September to encourage recognition of the flower as a symbol of patriotism. In 1908 he delivered a lecture entitled 'Wattle Time; or Yellow-haired September' in which he stated that 'by numbers, the Wattle is almost exclusively Australian, and should undoubtedly be our National Flower'. Interest in a national Wattle Day was revived in Sydney in 1909. Victoria and South Australia participated in 1910, and Queensland in 1912.

At the same time R. T. Baker, botanist and museum curator, advocated the choice of the Waratah, Telopea speciosissima as the Australian national flower. He wrote:

In 1911 the Evening News in South Australia reported indignant local reaction to a report 'that South Africa has commandeered the yellow flower (wattle), and proposes to use it for patriotic purposes' and supported the choice of the Waratah as the Australian national flower, noting its tangible features of strength, beauty and colour and its symbolic qualities of health, firmness, endurance and independence.

The adoption of wattle as the national flower tends to be confirmed by its introduction into the design of the Australian armorial bearings on the recommendation of the Rt Hon. Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister of Australia, when the Commonwealth Armorial Ensigns and Supporters were granted by Royal Warrant on 19 September 1912.

The conflict which existed about the choice of the Australian national flower is seen in the inclusion of both waratah and wattle flowers as decoration on the three golden trowels used by the Governor General, Lord Denman, the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Andrew Fisher and the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. King O'Malley, for the laying of foundation stones of the commencement column in Canberra, the national capital, on 12 March 1913.

Proclamation

Acacia pycnantha enjoyed popular acceptance as Australia's national flower for much of this century but it was not proclaimed as the national floral emblem until 1988, the year of Australia's bicentenary. The Gazettal is dated 1 September 1988, signed by the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen, on 19 August 1988.

A ceremony was held on 1 September 1988 at the Australian National Botanic Gardens when the Minister for Home Affairs, Robert Ray, made the formal announcement, and the Prime Minister's wife, Mrs Hazel Hawke, planted a Golden Wattle. 

Four years later, in 1992, the 1 September was formally declared 'National Wattle Day' by the Minister for the Environment, Mrs Ros Kelly at another ceremony at the Australian National Botanic Gardens. The Gazettal is dated 24 August 1992 and was signed by the Governor General, Bill Haydon, on 23 June 1992.

Acacia pycnantha

The specimen from which it was named was collected in 1836 in the interior of New South Wales by the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, Thomas Mitchell, who led two exploratory expeditions to the Darling and Murray River systems. The British botanist, George Bentham (1800-1884) described the species in 1842. Bentham wrote Flora Australiensis, the standard reference text on Australian plants until the publication of the Flora of Australia, which commenced in 1981.

The generic name Acacia is derived from the Greek 'akis', a point, referring to the prickly leaves of some species. The specific name pycnantha from the Greek 'pyknos', meaning 'dense', and 'anthos', meaning 'a flower', refers to the dense clusters of flowers. There are more than 900 species of Acacia in Australia, making it the largest genus in the Australian flora. The vernacular name, wattle, used for Australian species of Acacia, derives from Anglo-Saxon times. Wattles were long flexible twigs interwoven for the framework on which mud was daubed. This rural British building technique was introduced by early settlers, and an abundant local tree, Callicoma serratifolia (family Cunoniaceae), commonly and perhaps confusingly known as 'black wattle' was first used this way at Port Jackson. Species of Acacia were later used as wattles in Australia.

Acacia is the largest genus in the family Mimosaceae, the Mimosa family, which is mainly tropical and sub-tropical in distribution.

distribution mapAcacia pycnantha, Golden Wattle, is a shrub or small tree about 4 to 8 metres tall. After the seedling stage, true leaves are absent, their function being performed by phyllodes which are modified flattened leaf stalks lacking leaf blades. The leathery phyllodes are 6 to 20 cm long, broadly lance or sickle-shaped and bright green in colour. In spring large fluffy golden-yellow flower-heads with up to eighty minute sweetly scented flowers provide a vivid contrast with the foliage. The dark brown mature fruit, 7 to 12 cm long, splits along one side to release the seeds.

Golden Wattle occurs in the understorey of open forest or woodland and in open scrub formations in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, in temperate regions with mean annual rainfall of 350 mm to 1000 mm. It has been introduced into the Stirling Ranges near Perth where it threatens to become weedy. It regenerates freely after fires, which usually kill the parent plants but stimulate the germination of seeds stored in the soil if rain follows soon after. Regeneration may produce dense thickets in forests and woodlands and along roadsides.

The brilliant yellow, fragrant flowers of Golden Wattle make it a popular garden plant. It is moderately frost tolerant and grows well in a wide range of soils provided drainage is effective, but tends to be short-lived in cultivation. It is easily propagated from seed soaked in hot water to break the hard seed coat, and the seedlings can be transplanted to pots of soil mix for growing on before planting out in a lightly shaded or open position.

Golden Wattle is grown abroad in temperate regions for its bark which has a higher content of tannin than other species of Acacia cultivated for tanbark, although its relatively small size reduces the overall yield. Golden Wattle flowers have been used in perfume making. It was introduced to horticulture in the northern hemisphere about the middle of the nineteenth century. In Britain it survives outdoors only in the mildest areas. In California it has escaped from garden cultivation and now grows wild but it is not considered a pest. In South Africa, however, it has become a significant weed species.

click to enlargeSymbolic usage

The first granting of armorial bearings to the Commonwealth of Australia was made in 1908. A new design was granted by Royal Warrant on 19 September 1912. The branches of wattle used as an ornamental accessory to the shield, representing the badges of the six States as they were in 1912, were not mentioned in the blazon, but were depicted in the coloured illustration included in the gazettal of the Australian armorial bearings. The wattle depicted has clusters of spherical flowerheads coloured yellow and blue-grey, and green phyllodes characteristic of many species of Acacia. It is not a botanically accurate representation of A. pycnantha. There are conventional versions of the bearings for formal printing and other formal media [information]. Stylised versions are also used.
a stylised version

The Order of Australia is part of the Australian system of honours and awards established by the Queen on 14 February 1975 to recognise achievement or meritorious service. The designs of the insignia of the Order are based on an individual ball of wattle flowers. The insignia are convex golden discs adorned with beads and radiating lines, and surmounted by an enamelled crown, signifying the role of the Queen as Sovereign Head of the Order. Blue ribbons decorated with golden wattle motifs complete the insignia in which the colours that predominate, blue and gold, represent the sea which surrounds Australia and the colour of the popularly accepted national flower. The blue and gold wreath surmounting the shield in the armorial bearings of Australia is described in the blazon, 'for the Crest On a Wreath Or and Azure. . .'

Australians representing their country in international sporting events usually wear the national colours, green and gold, said to be based on wattle foliage and flowers.

The first Australian stamp to include wattle was a penny red stamp, issued in December 1913 and featuring a portrait of King George V. A similar design was used for four values of subsequent issues of stamps and another five values were added later. This wattle was not A. pycnantha but probably A. mearnsii or A. decurrens. Wattle was incorporated as part of the design of numerous other Australian stamps. The Royal visit of 1963 was commemorated by the issue of two stamps. One included flowers of wattle and rose, beneath portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1959-60 a set of stamps was issued featuring Australian native flowers designed by Margaret Stones, an Australian botanical artist at that time on the staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The 2 shilling stamp [illust] depicted Acacia pycnantha with the caption 'Wattle'. Golden Wattle was featured on a 5 cent stamp [illust] issued on 17 April 1970 which complements the earlier set decorated with the floral emblems of the six Australian States. There was a reproduction of an historic Christmas card, bearing a 'spray of wattle', not A. pycnantha, on a 35c stamp [illust] issued for Christmas 1982. A 41c stamp featuring Golden Wattle [illust] was issued for Australia Day, 1990.

Download a line illustration by Marion Westmacott.©

 


Written by Anne Boden for a booklet published by AGPS for the ANBG in 1985.
Updated Wednesday, 11 October, 2006 , Murray Fagg (anbg-info@anbg.gov.au)