I was once a city girl. Nothing could persuade me to live anywhere other than the inner west of Sydney. Newtown and its surrounds was where I worked, walked, swam, ate, partied, shopped and…… saw my first Flannel Flowers.
Yes… it was in 1991 and I was heading up King Street to the one and only fruit and vegetable shop back then, to buy mangoes. I could almost smell them as I entered the shop but on this day my mango mission was brought to a sudden halt by the sight of Flannel Flowers bunched up in buckets on the floor. My hands immediately reached out to touch their velvety fronds. It was as though they were pleading with me to stroke them. Their softness brushed my face as I searched for a fragrance. My nose was given nothing but a gentle tickle. It was sight and touch that rejoiced in the beauty of these silvery-grey treasures from nature.
The owner, who knew me well, watched my delight. He anticipated my question and offered, ‘Flannel Flowers.’ I repeated the words as though I was testing my ability to speak in another language.
Some twenty years later, I find myself a Sea Changer who has happily left the big smoke behind in search of life by the water at Jervis Bay. The exhilaration I felt when I first saw Flannel Flowers growing in nothing but sand near our house threw me back in time and filled me with the same delight I had experienced two decades earlier.
I have since discovered that they are also called Sydney Flannel Flower or Eastern Flannel Flower due to their native habitat around Sydney. A selection of these flowers were also sold as Federation Star as it was chosen to be the New South Wales emblem for the centenary of Federation (1901-2001). Its botanical name is Actinotus helianthi, which comes from Greek and means rays, spoke of wheel or sunbeam. Very fitting. And here’s a fascinating fact – this daisy-like flower is in fact related to the carrot!
In addition, the early colonists also fell in love with this flower, as seen by its use in Colonial art. Check out The Sydney Living Museum’s blog: http://blogs.hht.net.au/cook/26-january-1888/ for a lovely example of Flannel Flowers used on the State Banquet Menu to celebrate the first hundred years of Australian European settlement.
A beautiful story belonging to the D’harawal People tells of the flower that is shaped like a star. It demonstrates the need to care for all nature and how flowers are important to other living things. The story describes how it is the first flower to bloom after the ice has melted and that is why its soft petals are covered in fine fur to keep it warm. This story can be found here: http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/education/Resources/kids_zone/stories_and_songs/the_flannel_flower_story
Today, the Flannel Flower is used as a symbol by Mental Health Australia for it is a flower of resilience and survival and as humans we need to develop coping strategies in order to adapt. I believe that due to the Flannel Flower’s very tactile qualities this plant also makes a lovely symbol as it encourages you to reach out and touch it. Perhaps more of us in today’s society need to reach out to others…
It never ceases to amaze me how something so unique and exquisite can grow in such sandy soil, under a thick canopy of gum trees. I know where and when to find Flannel Flowers in my little seaside community. And there is one place that I find incredibly special. In a valley formed by scrubby dunes and dense with twisted Ghost Gums and Old Man Banksias, a carpet of Flannel Flowers blanket the undergrowth. They flourish in the dirty sand, get very little water and sun, yet they are in abundance in this same place every year.
There is something almost ancient about this location. The Flannel Flowers here seem to mute all sound. They are a quiet flower. They are Spring. They are joy.