, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Last year I featured our national flower, Acacia, as a name for Wattle Day. It was Australia Day last Monday, so I will be looking at another flower which is important to us – and was once a strong contender to become our national floral emblem.

Teleopea speciosissima is the Latin name for the New South Wales waratah, usually just called waratah. Native to the state suggested by its name, the waratah is a large shrub with striking, large crimson flowerheads, each containing hundreds of individual flowers. It blooms in the spring, and provides nectar for insects, birds, and pygmy possums. There are other species of waratah, most of which are native to New South Wales with a couple in Victoria and Tasmania, but Teleopea speciosissima is the best known.

The flower’s Latin name Telopea means “seen from afar”, to indicate its eye-catching appearance, while speciosissima means “most beautiful”. The common name comes from the Eora or Dharawal language indigenous to the Sydney area.

There are stories about the waratah in Indigenous Australian folklore. A Dreamtime legend from the Eora tells of a pigeon searching for her husband, when she has to take shelter in a waratah bush after being attacked and wounded by a hawk. Her husband calls to her, and as she struggles in the bush, her blood turned the white waratah flowers red.

A story from the Burragorang Valley, now lying beneath Waragamba Dam, relates that there was once a beautiful maiden who always dressed in a red cloak. When her lover did not return from battle, she died of grief, and the first waratah grew from the ground where she died. The waratah flower was a totem for the Dharawal people, who used it in ceremonies and arranged celebrations for the period of its flowering.

Europeans discovered the waratah when they arrived in 1788, and it was introduced to Britain the next year, where it managed to become a popular garden plant, despite being a little temperamental to grow; the Royal Horticultural Society gave it an Award of Merit in 1914. Today the waratah is grown commercially in several countries.

The waratah was often used in art design, being incorporated in many advertisements and commercial packaging. You may see stained glass windows in the Sydney Town Hall featuring waratahs, designed by French artist Lucien Henry in the late 19th century, while artist Margaret Preston produced her iconic waratah woodcuts in the 1920s, which are often reproduced.

After federation in 1901, the search was on for a flower to represent the country. Nationalistic fervour was high, and there were two main candidates – the waratah and the wattle. We already know that naturalist Archibald Campbell championed the wattle, while botanist Richard Baker was a waratah booster. He argued that the waratah was a better choice because it is only found in Australia, a truly national flower, while the blooms would make a distinctive motif.

The debate raged furiously, and so strongly did Baker make his points that he was nicknamed Commander in Chief of the Waratah Armed Forces. Lucien Henry would have been pleased, because he had been passionate about Australian native flowers, and taught courses in drawing them. When he returned to Paris, he wrote a book called Waratah: Australian Legend, to promote the flower he used so extensively in his designs. Lucien Henry died in 1896, and shortly afterwards, the popularity of Australian native flowers, including the waratah, exploded.

As with so many of these vigorous debates, it was unclear who had won, and the foundation stones for the national capital in 1913 diplomatically depicted both plants. Gradually the wattle became accepted as the national flower, while the waratah symbolised the state of New South Wales, having been chosen for the state rugby union team, the Waratahs, since the 1880s.

In 1962, the waratah was officially proclaimed the state floral emblem, and is incorporated into the logo for New South Wales, and the former department store, Grace Brothers. When an Australian team won Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show, it featured a building in the shape of a waratah, to indicate their Australian theme.

The Waratah Festival was once held every spring at the time of the plant’s flowering, but this has been replaced with the Sydney Festival, now held in January at the height of summer. Rather a shame, considering the long traditions for waratah celebrations in the Sydney region.

Many things have been named in honour of the waratah. There is the suburb of Telopea in Parramatta, while one of the oldest parks in Canberra is called Teleopea Park (Telopea Park School is the oldest school in Canberra). Waratah is a suburb in Newcastle, and also a town in Tasmania, while Waratah Bay is in Victoria – it is not named directly after the plant, but after a ship called the Waratah which anchored there when it needed repairs after being damaged.

(Incidentally, Waratah seems to be an unlucky name for boats. The SS Waratah disappeared without trace off the coast of South Africa in 1909, with hundreds of passengers on board, while another ship of that name was lost in the English Channel, one on a voyage to Sydney, one south of Sydney, and another in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Waratah Bay one clearly got off lightly only being damaged. Sailors being superstitious, I cannot recommend this ill-starred name for your vessel. However, the steam tug Waratah is part of the Sydney Heritage Fleet, so maybe it’s okay if you just trundle around Sydney Harbour).

Waratah is found as a patriotic personal name in Australian historical records around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly in the middle. Although slightly more common as a girl’s middle name, it seems to be have been given to both sexes as a first name in roughly equal numbers, which is unusual for a flower name.

However, apart from the flowers being large, bright and striking, rather than delicate, pale and pretty, the word waratah – pronounced WOR-uh-tah – doesn’t have a strongly feminine sound, sharing the WOR sound found in names such as Warren and Warwick. And although it ends in -ah, like many female names, there are also boy’s names ending in the same sound, like Noah, Joshua and Luca, so it has a very unisex feel to it.

I did manage to find a couple of Waratahs born in England in the 19th century, but cannot tell whether they had any connection to Australia, or if their parents were just fans of the flower. We can still chalk this up as an overwhelmingly Aussie name.

Like the brilliant flower, Waratah is a spectacular and distinctively Australian name choice. It is very patriotic, and if you are from New South Wales, has special meaning for your state. You may feel inclined to tuck it away in the middle, but if would be an unforgettable first name for either boys or girls.

Thank you to Michelle for suggesting the name Waratah to be featured on Waltzing More Than Matilda.

Waratah received an approval rating of 44%. 31% of people thought the name Waratah was too strange and unusual, and 16% believed it was only suitable as a middle name. However, 27% saw it as a patriotic and distinctively Australian choice. Nobody saw the name Waratah as too old-fashioned.