Earlier this spring, we had the pleasure of the company of a couple from Australia.
We hope … and believe … it was a happy three weeks staying with us while they toured central Scotland and visited a number of friends.
It was while they were here that it occurred to me that I hadn’t a clue about the Australian national anthem. No, it’s not ‘Waltzing Matilda’; nor is it, ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’; and it’s not, ‘Land Down Under’ (“I come from a place down under” by Men at Work … and who remembers them?) It is “Advance Australia Fair”, written by the Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick. It was first performed in 1878 and replaced “God Save the Queen” as the official national anthem in 1984. There’s not too many non-Australians know that.
And then I realised that I hadn’t a clue about Australia’s national flower. Any guesses, gentle reader? No? Well, it is Acacia pycnantha, commonly called … in Australia, anyway … golden wattle. It, too, is a new arrival on the national scene, having been officially proclaimed the Floral Emblem of Australia as recently as 1 September 1988 to mark Australia’s bicentenary. The first day of September … the first day of spring in the antipodes … was declared ‘Wattle Day’ in 1992 and many Aussies wear a sprig of wattle on that date.
The tiny flowers of the golden wattle have five very small petals, almost hidden by the long stamens, and are arranged in dense clusters. The golden wattle blooms in Australia’s spring, of course, with large fluffy, sweet smelling flower heads composed of clusters of many of the individually tiny flowers. Noted for its fragrance, the golden wattle is used in the manufacture of perfumes, bath herbs and potpourris as well as being featured prominently on the Australian coat of arms. (Come to think of it, I don’t have a clue about that, either!)
The golden wattle is a shrub … a bush with several stems rising above ground from the roots … or a small tree, with a single stems sprouting from the roots, and is the most common member of the large family of plants called collectively the Acacias. There are somewhere around 1300 species of Acacia worldwide, with about 950 of them being native to Australia. Acacia pycnantha … the Greeks called it ‘ah-ka-kee-ah’ because their word for a sharp point is akis and the plant has sharp thorns, while pycnantha comes from two Greek words and means ‘dense-flowered’ … grows widely throughout south-eastern parts of Australia in the hotter, drier climate of that region; and it thrives wherever it is introduced into hot, fairly dry conditions. It is regarded as a weed in … in alphabetical order … India, Indonesia, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Sardinia, South Africa, Tanzania and Tasmania,, all countries into which it has been introduced. The common name ‘wattle’, which applies to all Australian species of Acacia, was brought to Australia by the first British settlers, who built simple houses of ‘wattle and daub’, the wattles being long flexible twigs interwoven for the framework and the daub being the mud which was daubed on this structure.
The stems of Acacia were plentifully available to these early European immigrants and their widespread use in house construction … ‘hut construction’ might be a better term … resulted in the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wattle’ becoming the common name for the plant. The bushes grow to a height of between 4 and 8 metres … say, 13 to 25 feet in old money … tolerate slight frosts and are popular garden plants in countries with a suitable climate, although they tend to be short-lived in cultivation. They do not do well in the United Kingdom, which may be no bad thing considering their invasive habits in warmer climes.