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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Wattle Day

Traditionally, Wattle Day in New South Wales has always been August 1.  A few years ago, the Canberra bureaucracy changed it to September 1, but the true believers, here in New South Wales, will stay with August 1.  By September, most of Sydney's best wattle flowers have died away, and most of the wattles are dropping their seed on the day that some people call the first day of our southern spring.  No matter, there are almost always one or two species in flower.

Wildflowers are normal, the whole Sydney year around.  We have no home-grown deciduous trees in Australia, but we do have flowers all the year around, because our ‘climates’ are less extreme.  In early August, there are easily 40 species in bloom in the Sydney bush, with many more in bud.  At the lowest point in our ‘autumn’ — April and May, there are always between fifteen and twenty species flowering on any given hillside, but if the truth be known, we do not have real seasons, except in south-western Western Australia.

Our local ecosystems have evolved to cope with this lack of true annual seasons.  It gets warmer around Christmas and cooler around June to August, but that is about it.  Tim Flannery, says in his excellent book book The Future Eaters, that Australian farmers should not be made to pay their bills annually to the banks.  Rather, they and their accounts should be tied to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, for our plants and animals, like our present and future economy, are driven by forces far greater than mere seasons.

Because our plants can flower right through the mild year, they do.

This makes evolutionary sense, because the combined plants can then support a rich variety of pollinating insects and birds.  They take it in turn to use the resident pollinators' services, the pollinators stay around all year, and everything gains.  July and August are the time for the wattles to dominate the Australian bushland.  These are similar to the better-known mimosas of the northern hemisphere, though some of the French ‘mimosas’, grown for the perfume industry, are really our Australian wattles.

The name comes from the early colonists' building practices.  Putting up a timber frame, they filled in the gaps with ‘wattle and daub’, interwoven sticks and twigs, smeared with mud and whitewashed to make the whole water-proof.

If you wonder how this would look, think of the ‘Tudor’ style of house so favoured in Hollywood reconstructions, for Tudor architecture was also wattle and daub, usually with willow twigs under the whitewash.  Other trees provided the timbers in Australia, but the abundant wattle shrubs provided the twigs.

Nowadays we value our wattles for their flowers, golden or cream puffballs with leaves that can be a rich dark green or a bright silvery blue-green, leaves which may take the shape of delicate feathers, neat coin-sized circles, or broad straps.  Australia's national sporting colors are green and gold, representing the classic wattle, as you can see if you watch out for the Australians at the Olympics.

The wattle has long been a national symbol: here is part of a poem by Henry Lawson in 1891.  This was a time of social upheaval in Australia, as the trade unions and the Australian Labor Party came into being, and Lawson was looking back to the Eureka Stockade, some forty years earlier, when gold miners at Ballarat took up arms against an unjust government.
So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O' those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.

There is more to Freedom on the Wallaby, but that will give you a feel for it.  Cruder Australians have a different chant that they offer up in adoration of the wattle.  It requires a group to stand in a circle, facing in, and holding aloft sprigs of wattle as we chant:
This here is the wattle,
The symbol of our land,
Yer can stick it in a bottle,
Yer can hold it in yer hand.

Well, nobody ever said that Australians had to be easy to understand . . . or couth.

But even if you ignore the cultural significance, the nationalistic symbolism of the Australian wattle, the bush is a delight to look on in August.  Many of the other flowers are small, delicate, and insignificant, but the wattles stand out as golden masses on the hillsides, crowding the roadside edges in country that barely a year and a half ago was a fire-blackened and ash-covered ruin. 

The wattle is an Acacia, a relative of the peas.  This means the fluffy golden flower produces a pod which later splits open, flinging seeds in all directions.  By October, when we start to see the first small bushfires that herald the approaching high summer, the wattle seeds will already be deep in the leaf litter, or blown under fallen logs, waiting for fire to trigger their germination.  Maybe that is why they flower so early.  Everything here is fire-adapted, for our landscape is shaped by fire, and many wattle seeds will not shoot until a fire has passed over them.

Around the world, there are some 900 species of wattle, with 75 in the Sydney region, and more than 700 across Australia.  All of them have roots which make a home for nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and a delicate perfume that many people miss altogether.  Some produce edible seeds, and some of our most delicious biscuits are made with wattle seeds.  Some people even make fritters from the flowers!

Botanically, the wattles are remarkable for the number of leafless species.  While we have no deciduous trees, we have a number of trees which have done away with true leaves altogether, relying on phyllodes, leaf-like stems, to carry out the same task that leaves usually perform, the wattles being among them.

Dry climates make plants do funny things sometimes, and it seems that phyllodes are more efficient in dry areas than the traditional leaf.  The trees with large dark-green strap-like ‘leaves’ are really equipped with phyllodes instead.

Many Australian gardens, and almost all bush areas feature a wattle tree or five.  As often as not, this will be the Cootamundra wattle, but in 1991, I was told that the people who came to Sydney for the Olympics would look in vain for that one around the Olympics site.

The consulting botanist there told me that the Cootamundra wattle is proving to be a nasty weed, away from its home territory, and so it has been banned.

It seems that even a national symbol, a cultural icon, even one that is a botanical oddity, must mind its manners or face banishment.

Soon, though, it will be time for the waratahs.

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