Wattles are the cornerstone of any thriving, beautiful and wildlife friendly garden. You may hear people malign wattles, voicing myths about them all being short-lived, scraggly and a trigger to hay fever. But if you understand the benefits of wattles and the attributes of different species, you will likely embrace what they bring to your garden.
1. Blossom displays that last for months
Grow a variety of wattles and your winter garden will erupt in a relay of blossom that lasts for months. Spreading Wattles flower from April, Wooly Wattles from early July, then Golden and Spike Wattles flare through the mid-story from June. Finally, Varnish, and Gold Dust Wattles brighten shrub masses from August until the days warm in October.* This floral cavalcade, generates a sense of place and season.
2. A rapid screen
Wirilda, Silver and Golden Wattles grow fast; in just 2 years your windows can look to foliage and movement rather than tin or palings. Gold-dust and Black Wattles come a close-second in the race for greening a garden. Plant a copse of tall Blackwoods, Silver Wattle or Lightwoods to screen out a distant, unsightly view.
3. Bring life to a garden under pressure
Because wattles are pioneer plants and often the first to appear in the bush after fire or disturbance, they are the perfect choice for planting out a bare site. Wattles are in the legume family, and like peas and beans, they fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil through specialized nodules on their roots. Use wattles to kick-start the fertility of compacted, eroded soils, and to provide shade and protection for other slower growing species.
4. Habitat for wildlife
If you take delight in small bush-birds such as Silvereyes, Thornbills and Pardalotes, encourage them to visit your garden by planting Wattles. Provide birds with protection from cats and predatory or territorial larger birds by planting the prickly Spreading and Hedge Wattles in unused corners of the garden. Grow Blackwood, Black Wattle and Wirilda for shade during extreme Summer heat and for shelter from strong winds.
All wattle species provide habitat for an enormous variety of insects, which in turn build a garden’s food web, feeding a host of insectivorous bush-birds and supplementing the diet of a variety of small honeyeaters. Pollen feeding native bees, small flies, wasps and beetles are common amongst wattle blossoms and you can observe mixed-flocks of birds foraging through blossoms as they feed on these insect pollinators. A variety of beetle and moth larvae chew wattle foliage, with a preference for the bi-pinnate leaves on species such as Silver and Mitchell’s Wattle. Other insects such as scale, mealybugs, ants and treehoppers feed on wattle sap, either through specialized mouth parts or by accessing the sugar rich secretions from leaf glands. Wattle seed, insect in galls and wood boring larvae are another source of food for parrots and cockatoos, which can rip open wood and gall with their strong beaks.
5. Low water use
Select wattle species indigenous to your area and do away with Summer watering. Local species are adapted to local rainfall and don’t need watering once established, unless you’re experiencing an extended drought.
Many wattles are particularly drought tolerant because they don’t have true leaves. Instead they have phyllodes, which are flattened stems that look like leathery leaves. Phyllodes minimise water loss.
Take a broad view
You will find a huge range of non-local wattles for sale in retail nurseries. While many of these may be a beautiful addition to your garden, watch-out as many are recognised as environmental weeds which have established wild populations in bushland far from their original home.
For instance, species such as Cootamundra, White-sallow Wattle, Snowy River Wattle and Ovens Wattle are recognised environmental weeds in the Mount Alexander Shire but are all available in local nurseries.
Start wattle gardening with the huge variety of beautiful local species. If you do choose a non-local species, keep a close watch on any new recruits in your garden. If your non-local species is suckering or seeding out, it’s time to remove it and replace it with a local equivalent.
When stressed, Wirildas, Black, Silver and Golden Wattles may succumb to wood-boring beetle larvae that eat through trunk, stem or root, ultimately killing their host. Try to be philosophic about these episodes; insect occurrences are part of building backyard diversity and your connection to a dynamic living system.
Because some species live fast and die young, succession planting is important. Take note when any shrubs or trees are aging badly: it’s time to under-plant with the next wave. Gold-dust and Lightwoods can be reinvigorated with hard pruning, but they live a reasonably long life when left alone. With its 150-year lifespan, you can’t go past the Blackwood for a magnificent specimen tree with deep canopy and elegant architecture.
In the event of a garden death, wattles are quick to replace. Take a broad view and don’t let the naysayers deter you from including members of this diverse and glorious plant family around your home.
Words and photos by Cassia Read
*Wattle species mentioned in this article are indigenous to the Goldfields bioregion of Central Victoria,
This article has been adapted from the chapter: Read, CF (2018) Five reasons to love wattles in your goldfields garden. In: Slattery B, Perkins E, and Silver B, Wattles of the Mount Alexander Region, Friends of the Box Ironbark Forest, Castlemaine [Order here]