Maria Hitchcock, known as ‘The Wattle Lady’, is responsible for gazettal of Australia’s National Floral Emblem (Acacia pycnantha) and National Wattle Day.
Tell us about your teaching career …
I taught in various primary schools for 7 years, before moving to Armidale in 1974. I then had 3 children and was a stay at home mum. During this time I completed an external BA, majoring in German, Botany and Archaeology. The degree opened the door to TAFE teaching during the 1980s – which suited me, because I could work at night.
I taught Botany, Horticulture, Herbs and a variety of short courses centred around gardening. In 1992 I took up a position as the German teacher at Armidale High and stayed there for 16 years, before retiring in 2007.
During that time I was able to study in Germany on several occasions and participated in an exchange teacher scheme with a school in Vienna. I also completed a Masters with Honours in Aboriginal Studies at UNE. I still do relief teaching, as the need arises.
You’re involved with the ‘Australian Plants Society’?
I am a Life Member of this organisation and was a foundation member of the New England group in 1977. During my first Presidency, I started up both the Tamworth and Glen Innes Groups. I have held many executive positions over the years and am currently President again and edit the newsletters. For 16 years from 1992 I was Leader of the Correa Study Group, which had a large membership of enthusiasts from all over Australia.
This led me to my passion for Correas, and I now hold the registered National Living Collection in my garden just out of Armidale. I have been called on many times to speak at conferences or to other groups about a variety of topics, and I write articles for journals. I am currently Leader of the new Waratah and Flannel Flower Study Group.
How were you involved in the recognition of our National Floral Emblem?
This happened by chance. I was asked about the words of the Wattle song back in 1985, and in my research I discovered that neither the emblem nor Wattle Day had been officially gazetted. Everyone just assumed it was so. I then set out on a national campaign to get both the emblem (Acacia pycnantha) and National Wattle Day gazetted. It took a few years of never giving up, and I was finally successful with the emblem in 1988. I then campaigned for 3 further years, writing letter after letter to the various State Premiers and essentially wearing them down! National Wattle Day (1 September) was formally gazetted in 1992, after I had obtained agreement in writing from each of the states and territories.
How did you become known as ‘The Wattle Lady’?
At the start of my campaign, I enlisted the aid of Ian MacNamara (Macca) of Australia All Over on ABC radio. Ian called me ‘The Wattle Lady’, and the name stuck.
Ian was a huge supporter in the campaign, and I received many letters from his listeners with their own personal Wattle Day stories.
What books have you published?
My first book was a co-operative project with the New England Group of the Society for Growing Australian Plants (now called the Australian Plants Society). I co-authored and co-ordinated Australian Plants for the Northern Tablelands of NSW, which we self published in 1982. It’s been out of print for many years now, but people still ask about it.
My second book, Wattle, was published in 2001. It included the history of the Wattle Day movement in Australia, from its humble beginnings in Hobart in 1838. As well as botanical and horticultural chapters, it also included a large anthology of Wattle poems, songs and plays, never before published outside of the School Magazine. This book has now become a collector’s item, which prompted my publisher Rosenberg to suggest a 2nd edition. This will be launched on September 1, 2012.
My third book, Correas, Australian Plants for Waterwise Gardens (published in 2010), was the result of nearly 20 years research, documenting, photographing and recording Correas in the wild. This necessitated many field trips, mostly to Victoria and South Australia, during the winter months. At one stage my youngest daughter Sarah bemoaned yet another wintry holiday and suggested I take up an interest in tropical plants, which would take us north in July, rather than south! As well as these books, I have written two editions of the national magazine Australian Plants, one on Wattles and one on Correas.
Plans for the future?
Who knows what lies ahead? I have about 6 books in my head, including a novel or two. Hopefully I’ll be able to get them into print one day. I love propagating plants, so will continue to run my nursery business ‘Cool Natives’ and enthuse local gardeners to successfully grow more native plants – especially those which occur naturally in our region.
The Waratah and Flannel Flower Study Group will keep me busy. This is an exciting venture, and my members include some of the foremost Waratah breeders in Australia. My aim is to encourage a wide range of gardeners to grow Waratahs and to make Flannel Flowers more readily available in the nursery trade.
I am successfully growing some of the new hybrid Waratahs and am experimenting with the best way to grow Flannel Flowers locally.
I also chair the Dumaresq Progress Association and hope to continue this involvement with my neighbours. I love opera and ballet and cinema, and we are indeed blessed with a wonderful cultural environment in Armidale. To keep fit, I play tennis and cycle when I can.
My adult children are now spread all over the country, and my husband Don and I have just returned from driving to Perth and back to visit our son and help him with his garden. Of course, none of my achievements would ever have happened without the fantastic support of my husband Don. We shall celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this year, and it’s been a wonderful partnership which I hope will continue for many years to come.