Wattle Day and the Changing Seasons

Golden Wattle

Wattle Day will be celebrated at the Australian Light Horse Memorial Park on Sunday 2nd September 2018, from 10:00am to 1:30pm (see details here).

Wattles are have been a symbol of the Australian bush for a long time and their flowering heralds the changes in the seasons in south-eastern Australia.

Lesley Dalziel writes that “the sight of the first wattles in Spring must have brought joy to all, both the aboriginal inhabitants and the early settlers.  The bright blooms heralded the beginning of a season of growth and for the settlers, a new harvest.  For the aborigines the wattles would be a sign of welcome warmth to come, and a harvest of wattle seeds for baking.  All would have appreciated the beauty of the transformed landscape.”

Wattles were first used as a meaningful emblem in Tasmania in 1838.  Later in the century, the Australian Natives Association argued for the wattles as a national floral emblem, similar to the thistle for Scotland.  In 1899, Field naturalist AJ Campbell founded the Victorian Wattle Club (later League). He helped organise spring excursions on the 1st September each year into the bush surrounding Melbourne.  All this evolved into the first ‘national’ Wattle Day, celebrated in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide on 1 September 1910.

Some saw wattles as a way to express patriotism, particularly during World War I.  Sprigs of wattle were sent to diggers overseas.  But over the years, interest in Wattle Day waned until 1988, when the idea of the wattle as a national flower was revived.  In 1992 the Governor-General declared 1 September as National Wattle Day.

Dr Rod Panter, in a brief on Wattle Day to the Australian Parliament in 1997, wrote that:

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, and so on.  We can celebrate our ‘Australianness’ on Wattle Day in quite a different way from Anzac Day…  Wattle day looks forward…

Wattle Day is a significant time in the natural seasons of Australia.  Europeans brought in the European idea of four seasons, with Spring starting on 1st September.  But Indigenous Australians have several different seasons that more closely reflect changes in the natural world through the year in their different parts of Australia – not just the weather but also the natural cycles of plants and animals.

Dr Tim Entwisle, in his book Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s Changing Seasons (CSIRO 2014), describes the five to seven or more seasons used by indigenous people and acknowledges their regional accuracy.  From this, Dr Entwisle devised a system of five seasons for the south-east part of Australia including:

Early Spring (August and September): the “early Australian spring starts the seasonal year. It’s when the bushland and our gardens burst into flower. It’s also when that quintessential Australian plant, the wattle, is in peak flowering across Australia”.

This is followed by early Summer (October/-November), Summer (December to March), Autumn (April and May) and Winter (June and July)

Whatever the name of the season, Wattle Day is clearly in the middle of the change from cool winter into the peak times of flowering and breeding for most species.  Locally, wattles are already starting to flower in August.  Spreading Wattle with its pale cream flowers has been out for a few weeks and Golden Wattle – the main Wattle Day species – is about to paint the landscape with gold.  These will be in full flower by 1st September.

So Wattle Day on 1st September is – ecologically – a very apt time of the year for a celebration of life.  What could be better as a symbol of life in Australia?

Information and quotes from  Wattle Day Association, Victorian Museum, ABC Science Show

Written by Peter Mitchell

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