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National Wattle Day

by Monique Miller
Published 01 Sep 2023

You may recognise wattles from post stamps or as Australia’s national floral emblem. But there’s so much more to discover about wattles.

Wattle is the common name for the genus Acacia. Acacia forest is the second most common forest type in Australia, occurring in all states and territories and covering a total of 9.8 million hectares.

There are over 1200 species of wattles!

That makes wattles the largest genus of flowering plant in the country, outnumbering even the ubiquitous Eucalyptus.

Grey Mulga Wattle. Photo Monique Miller.

Acacias species occur in a wide range of environments, with species adapted from the skeletal soils of mallee scrub to arid central Australian desert lands, to the poorly draining swampy rich soils of Tasmania.

Wattles often burst onto landscapes across the country as the cooler months slowly give way to longer days and warmer weather. As we emerge out of winter, many wattles explode into festoons of fluffy golden blossoms, announcing the arrival of spring. However, in many places, wattles flower throughout the year.  

Flowering wattle at Tarcutta Hills Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

Here on Djaara country, the lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, Acacia implexa (Lightwood Wattle) begins the show in mid to late summer, with pale, creamy pom-pom flowers and beautiful sickle-shaped phyllodes (stems).

Many other species flower as the months pass – it's like a domino effect of colour! The Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle), with its feathery pinnate leaves and dark veiny bark rounds out the year, flowering until almost Christmas.

Wattles come in all shapes and sizes, from towering 30 metre trees to tiny prostrate ground covers you wouldn’t notice until they’re in flower.

One striking difference between a lot of wattless are their leaves. All wattles begin life with true leaves, but many wattles develop phyllodes as they mature. A common wattle with phyllodes is Acacia pycnantha (Golden Wattle).

Sunshine Wattle flowers at Friendly Beaches Reserve, Tas. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Phyllodes function as leaves, but are actually a modified, flattened stem. This is an arid country adaptation, as plants respire less water through phyllodes than true leaves. Phyllodes also come in an array of forms, from flat broad leaf-life shapes of the Acacia obliquinervia (Mountain Hickory Wattle), to the thornlike forms of the Acacia genistifolia (Spreading Wattle).

Wattles are significant both culturally and ecologically.

Many are used by Traditional Owners for food, tools, medicine and as seasonal indicators. Seeds were roasted and eaten, or ground to make flour for baking. Wattle sap from cuts in the trunk was eaten or made into a drink. It could even be used as a glue. The bark, which is high in tannins, was used to make a tea to treat diarrhea, hemorrhage, and clean wounds. Weapons and handles were also made from the wood.

And it’s not just Traditional Owners who benefit from wattles. Often the dense or thorny foliage of wattles provides shelter for small bird species. Flowers attract many pollinating insects, which benefit other plants requiring pollination and also insect-feeding birds and small mammals. Many species of insects, including some butterflies such as the Imperial Blue Butterfly breed only on wattles, making wattles intrinsic to biodiversity.

Like many Australian plants, wattles are pyrophytes: they have an intricate relationship with fire.

Wattle seeds have a very hard outer casing. This means that they can stay viable in the soil for a long time before germinating, and that they need a prompt (such as fire) to germinate. In nature, this hard coating is designed to be broken down by the heat of a bushfire or a cultural burn, then the fast-growing species germinate en masse and bring a beautiful burst of colour to burnt out areas.

Purple-wood Wattle. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

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