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Australia’s Floral Emblem


Golden Wattle


Acacia pycnantha

Joseph Banks (1743-1820), English naturalist noted an apparent absence of plant foods acceptable to European taste within the flora of New South in 1770. As a result Banks advised Captain Arthur Phillip to take seeds and plants with him to provide grain, fruit and vegetables for the new penal colony.

Bank's description of the rich and unfamiliar nature of the Australian flora also stimulated a lively curiosity among European botanists, and numerous dried specimens of seed and plants were sent from the colony to Botanic enthusiasts in Europe. Many notable British, German and French botanists subsequently visited Australia to collect specimens of their own, most of which were new to science at that time.

For most of the nineteenth century however, few settlers in Australia displayed any interest in the local flora, preferring gardens of exotic plants. Larger landholders exploited the unusual effects of native plants like the 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, 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. He promoted a Wattle Day every September to encourage recognition of the flower as a symbol of Australian 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:

The expression 'the land of the Waratah', applies to Australia and no other; it is Australia's very own. In the Wattle, Australia has not a monopoly like the Waratah, for Africa has over one hundred native wattles, and it also occurs in America, East and West Indies and the Islands. Then again it is not too much to say that throughout the whole botanical world the Waratah is probably unsurpassed as a flower for decorative purposes, and it is impossible to so conventionalise it out of recognition a great feature in a national flower."

In 1911 the Evening News in South Australia reported on the indignant local reaction in that State to a report 'that South Africa has commandeered the yellow flower (wattle), and proposes to use it for patriotic purposes. The paper then vigorously 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 was largely confirmed by its introduction into the design of the Australian armorial bearings on the recommendation of the Rt Hon. Andrew Fisher, then Prime Minister of Australia when the Commonwealth Armorial Ensigns and Supporters were granted by Royal Warrant on 19 September 1912.

The conflict that existed overt 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 in Canberra, the national capital, on 12 March 1913.

The Proclamation

Although Acacia pycnantha enjoyed popular acceptance as Australia's national flower for much of the last century but it was not actually proclaimed as the national floral emblem until 1988, the year of Australia's bicentenary. The Gazettal is dated 1 September 1988, and was 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 1st of 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 on that occasion was dated 24 August 1992 and was signed by the Governor General, Bill Haydon, on 23 June 1992.

Symbolic 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 are used as an ornamental accessory to the shield that represents the badges of the six States as they were in 1912. They were not mentioned in the blazon (The formal written description of the design.), but they 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 however is not a botanically accurate representation of A. pycnantha.

The Order of Australia

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 enameled 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 national flower.

On Postage Stamps

The first Australian stamp to include wattle was a penny red stamp, issued in December 1913. 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 has since been 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 depicted Acacia pycnantha with the caption 'Wattle'. Golden Wattle was featured on a 5 cent stamp issued on 17 April 1970 which complements the earlier set decorated with the floral emblems of the six Australian States.