Wattle they think of next. Our most instantly recognisable plant named after a quick and crude building method (wattle and daub) in the new colonies. Stick a few sticks up and slap a bit of mud on it and call it home. Australian vegetation by many then was seen as a barrier and a hindrance to transport and development of agriculture and lack of amenity to the home sick.

In spite of this by 1891 the Wattle Blossom League in Melbourne was in full swing promoting the wattle to represent growing patriotic feelings and cutting the mother countries apron strings. It was suggested we needed a floral emblem (not unlike Canada’s adoption of the maple leaf). It was argued that the wattle was vitally important to the growing economy by way of a good supply of tannin (up to 45.8% from Acacia pycnantha). The wattle had to wait nearly one hundred years to be proclaimed as our national floral emblem September 1, 1988.

As time has passed, we have recognised the wattle as so much more than a pretty plant in the scrub, a building material and for tannin. Some of our most prized early furniture is of blackwood Acacia melanoxylon. For Aborigines in arid and semi arid areas elegant wattle Acacia victoriae provided life saving protein.

Our wattles (all 1400 or so of them) has come to mean so much more than their ‘uses’. For most of us (and for many Australia is an adopted country) wattles have become even without a commercialised “Wattle Day” intrinsicly Australian. The sight, fragrance and memory of a wattle can stir many things. The promise of spring, a joy to behold and a garden planned to take advantage of such a bright colour in winter when others around the world in the same season shiver in the dark and cold months. It brings an optimism that can not be matched. Bright yellow backed by fresh green has got to be a colour combination that shouts “new”, “fresh” and “strong”. No wonder for sporting teams it becomes an almost automatic choice for uniforms.

In the garden in the Riverland and Mallee we can have Acacias flowering from autumn right through to later in spring. Some are short flowered but brilliant when they are out in full bloom. Others flower over quite long periods while others can flower ‘out of season’ to provide an unexpected splash of colour.

Choosing Acacias can be half the fun with so many to choose from. Consider the height. Some grow as ground cover barely 10cm high while others can be well above 10m tall. Some are quite able to thrive on our natural rainfall of less than 250mm per year while others require damp soils all year to attain their best. Some are small open shrubs while others are spreading dense shade trees. It is not so much of a case of choosing a spot for a wattle but rather choosing a wattle for any given spot. For example, a salty heavy clay soil that will not be watered at all will support Acacia salicina Pt Broughton willow wattle, a spreading tree 10 to 15m with a dense canopy, lemon yellow flowers and beautiful timber.
On top of a sand hill with no watering, Acacia sclerophylla hard leaved wattle will have a leaf covering display of flowers in bright yellow on a shrub not much more than 1m. Acacia iteaphylla Flinders Range wattle will be happy as a dense screen 3 to 5m on almost any soil with or without watering with yellow flowers in autumn and winter. Lets not forget our national floral emblem Acacia pycnantha golden wattle a small tree to 6m that will flower in the dead of winter with largish bright golden yellow balls and bold ‘leaves’ that was responsible for Acacias being called wattles in the first place. Sometimes if you look carefully you can see the odd old farm building made from wattle and daub still standing even though they were built out of sticks and a bit of mud.

This article first published in the Riverland Weekly © August 13, 2009.