There is a children’s book written by Shel Silverstein in which a tree gives all its parts until it has nothing left. There are many trees in Australia, including brachychiton rupestris, the Queensland Bottle tree, that could fit this description.
The tree under discussion today, however, is the Wooly Wattle. This modest plant with it unprepossessing name is sufficiently important to have its own National Recovery Plan. Why?
First, it is one of those vanishing plants. In 1991, there were around 10,000 Wooly Wattle plants. Today, there are less than 6000.
Second, it does a lot of different things for its environment. The Wooly or Hairy Wattle, scientific name acacia languinophylla, is one of the first plants to regrow after a forest fire. They grow well in heavy soils, such as clay, and are useful in preventing erosion. They are also a legume, and function as a nitrogen fixer.
Like many Australian plants, extreme heat weakens the tough outer parts of the seed, encouraging the inside parts of the plant to grow. If you have been authorized to grow Wooly Wattle from seed, one way to encourage the plants to grow is to pour boiling water over the seeds, then wait several hours before planting.
Before you embark upon a Wooly Wattle seeding spree, however, there are some things to think about. Acacia languinophylla is on the vulnerable list. It is not ok to gather seed from the wild. By removing the seed from an area that is clearly a viable habitat, you might prevent several seeds from reaching their full potential. If the soil is not right, the sun exposure, the slope, or the area where you plant is scheduled for construction or road work, those precious seeds might be lost.
Even though there are many enthusiastic environmental groups filled with people who are dedicated to saving biodiversity one lovely plant at a time, too much misplaced enthusiasm can actually be detrimental to a plant population. For example, our own glauca grass trees, glauca xanthorrhoea, need a specialized type of mycorrhiza to thrive. Acacia langhinophylla also has its requirements for best growth, even though it is a tough little plant that is doing its best to hang in there and keep on growing.
You might ask why a plant that is so tough that it is one of the first to grow back after a forest fire has become so drastically challenged. It is a good question and one that deserves an answer.
The existing acacia population might simply be aging out. Fewer new plants are growing for a variety of reasons that include creating concrete linings for waterways, increasing grazing areas, and generally reducing habitat. The increased extent and heat of recent forest fires might also be a factor.
Fortunately, there is a plan for the recovery of this important plant population. It is as follows:
- Spread the word so that people responsible for public or private land will know that the Wooly Wattle is an important plant, and that it is on the vulnerable list.
- Work with indigenous people, with environmental groups, and with private owners to increase habitat.
- The Botanic Gardens and Parks Storage have seed that is being held in storage.
- Staff in Katanning and Yilgarn are monitoring Wooly Wattle populations.
As you can see, there is hope for this lovely, humble plant with its funny name. One final question you might have is why is it called Wooly Wattle? The wooly part is extremely simple: it grows fine hairs or “wool” over its leaves and stems. The Wattle part refers to a material that is woven together to make a dense mat or fence. At one time, peasant houses in Europe and Great Britain were made by plastering mud over mats of woven sticks. The building method was known as “wattle and daub”. The word descends from the proto-Germanic word “wadlaz” meaning to weave.
Wooly Wattle is only one of many plants that are vulnerable or endangered around the world. If you are a nature enthusiast (and we hope you are) remember the admonition, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” While you are about it, be sure to keep your footprints to designated trails. This keeps from impacting the earth and allows those precious seeds to grow.