Recreating the Country blog
- becoming wild in isolation
Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha.
Commonly pronounced - ‘Pick-nan-tha’
Some human context
One of our most internationally celebrated wattles is the extraordinary Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha. Every Olympic athlete wares the green and gold because of the golden flower clusters and the glossy green 'leaves' adorning this humble small tree.
Read why they are not true leaves but phyllodes in my May blog on acacias
… and it’s also our national floral emblem?
Its claim to super-celebrity status as Australia’s floral emblem is quite dubious in the light of its limited distribution. The Golden Wattle grows naturally in only three states; NSW, Victoria and SA and it’s a declared weed in Tasmania. Oops!
The story of making it to celebrity status can be summed up in three words - politics, charisma and money.
Translating its botanical name helps to appreciate its charismatic charms as pycnantha literally means ‘dense clusters of flowers’
More Greek – pyknos = dense & anthos = flower.
It may seem strange to read this now, but it was its commercial value in the early 1900's, as the richest source of natural tannin, that was the game changer. The powerful and influential leather industry in the more established eastern states threw their weight behind its choice.
This was enough to sway the members of the ‘National Conference of the Wattle Day League’ in 1913 to recommend the Golden Wattle as the national flower.
Though it took another 75 years of debate to have it declared Australia’s floral emblem in 1988.
Follow this link to read more about this fascinating history
The Golden wattle is a quick growing small tree that will reach its mature height of 5 meters in 3 - 5 years. It produces clusters of pollen rich flowers in winter & spring. This pollen is critical protein rich food for native bees and ants at the end of winter when there is a shortage of food. Beatles, butterflies and wasps find its sap-wood, leaves and seed irresistible as well.
In the web of life all these insects are a smorgasbord for the many insectivorous woodland birds.
It is relatively short lived (7-12 years), though it is very fast growing and quick to mature. This makes it the perfect pioneer small tree providing early shelter for the slower growing longer lived trees emerging around it.
The benefits of a short life
Having a short life results in quick establishment of fallen-log habitat in native bush and wider biodiversity plantings. This form of 'on-ground' shelter is critical for reptiles, amphibians, ground feeding birds and small mammals.
Its short life also offers other unexpected benefits to the ecology of forests and woodlands.
When it falls it disturbs the soil and opens up the overhead canopy letting in more sunlight and warmth. Sunlight, warmth and soil disturbance are necessary to kick-start new life in the form of the seeds of grasses, herbs, shrubs and trees lying dormant in the soil. The nitrogen it has added to the soil with the help of rhizobia will enable these new plants to establish more quickly.
Scroll to the end of my May blog on Acacias to read about amazing rhizobia
Caution to home gardeners
Its short lifespan and medium to large size makes it a poor choice for most home gardens and for narrow farm plantations. Its early demise will open gaps in narrow plantations and likely cause wind damage to adjacent trees and shrubs. In large gardens, wider farm plantations and native bushland its short life becomes a valuable asset to the ecology as mentioned above.
The Golden Wattle produces large quantities of edible seed from December to early January.
Efficient separation of the seed from the dry pods is made easier by choosing the right harvest time. The best time for seed collection is when the majority of the dry pods have started to open revealing the shiny black seeds inside.
Handfuls of pods can then be stripped from the tree onto a tarpaulin spread at the base of the tree. Many of the seeds will separate from the pods when they fall to the ground. A common garden sieve can be used to finish the seed cleaning, Store in zip-lock plastic bags until needed.
It is easy to propagate from seed using the boiling water treatment described at the end of the May 2020’s Acacia blog.
Next week I'll introduce a small local wattle with lots of charm though much less international fame.
Gold-dust Wattle, Acacia acinacea
- becoming wild in isolation.
This month, botanical names starting with A
Last week we started our nature adventure and name challenge with the amazing Chocolate Lily. Arthropodium strictum and three of its close relatives that are all sweet scented and edible. Click here to read about them.
Its exciting planting some of our wonderful natural heritage in your own garden. Then you can see millions of years of evolution going through its annual life-cycle where you can appreciate it every day
How did you go with the first tongue twister botanical name? I find botanical names have a rhythm that helps me remember them. Say them over to yourself a few times to hear the 'flow' of the words. There is a poetic beauty in them that you will find
The next amazing indigenous plant is another ground level plant with a close cousin that is a familiar shrub, though you may not realise it yet. I think of this ground-layer plant as a very useful groundcover. It's a saltbush that isn’t a bush and it has all the toughness, hardiness and the usefulness of the saltbush family.
Berry or Creeping Saltbush, Atriplex semibaccata
How to say it.
At – trip – lex and run those syllables together. Semi offers little challenge, and as you think of the Magna Carta, say bac – cata and you’ve got it.
Its ancient origins are all Latin - Salsa anyone
Pliny the Elder first used the Latin word atriplex in his remarkable book ‘Natural History’ published in AD 77. He was describing an edible mountain spinach and other related useful plants like amaranth.
The Latin word baccata = bearing berries. The scientific name literally means a spinach like plant with berries.
It follows that the Berry Saltbush is a member of the amaranth family as are all the saltbush species.
Some human context
The berries on the Berry Saltbush can be eaten fresh or made into jam if you have the inclination and the time as they are very small. They are a little sweet with a salty note. You know its diamond shaped berries are ripe when they turn red.
To add to its potential, its leaves are high in protein and can be grazed by sheep. As it grows it hugs the ground and can spread to 1m across within twelve months. Its grey foliage is an attractive feature that provides good contrast in the home garden.
If you're looking for a dense fast growing drought tolerant groundcover, its hard to find a match for this plant.
Like other members of the saltbush family it's higher leaf salt levels make it less flammable. This feature makes it very useful in fire prone country locations where dry straw mulch and wood chips can become a fire hazard.
The Berry Saltbush is therefore very valuable as a fire retardant living mulch.
Here is an interesting observation and link from Stuart McCallum, activist, conservationist and long time Friend and protector of the Bannockburn Bush.
This Berry Saltbush has managed to colonise our VicRoads/Golden Plains replanting site on Harvey Rd.
The Berry Saltbush provides dense cool habitat for insects like springtails as well as skinks and frogs.
Imagine your well fed garden Bluetongue lizzards safe in a home that provides a balanced diet of protein rich insects and vitamin rich fruit for most of the year.
Small ground feeding birds like the
Superb Fairywren will pick through the grey foliage to find insects and berries as well.
A close relative - Atriplex nummularia
Its bushy close cousin that I mentioned earlier is Oldman Saltbush, Atriplex nummularia. You may know it as the plant that saltbush lamb is grown on.
Nummularia is pronounced numb – mule – area. It earned its Latin name because its circular leaves are like a Roman coin, nummus = coin
Nature notes & human context
Both its leaves and seeds can be eaten, the latter being used as a protein rich food by Indigenous Australians. Read more about its food potential here
This bush grows to about 2m x 2m and is planted on farms in hedgerows to provide drought proof nutritious food for grazing animals. It also provides them with dense wind shelter.
Other animals like small birds and Bluetongue lizards have been recorded using the dense habitat it provides for nesting and for shelter.
... and their easy to propagate
Both atriplex species are easy to propagate from seed. It’s as simple as collecting the mature berries and sowing them into potting mix (or garden soil). They’ll germinate within a few weeks.
When they are large enough to handle, transplant into small pots to grow them on for the garden or the back paddock. See this link to the NSW Department of Primary Industries for more information on Oldman Saltbush as stock fodder.
Next week we will venture into the very large genus of Acacias with two of my favourites - a beautiful small shrub and a longlived graceful small tree.
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.