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COLUMN: Unmistakable catkins are spring's early flowers

Catkins, lacking delicate parts, can tough out a few days of chill rain and a small flurry of lacklustre snow, notes outdoors columnist
20220407_Cineplex Marsh_Alder catkins Hawke) (2)
Catkins, above, are unmistakable to identify and are a sure sign of the next step in the progression of spring.

Tis the season for catkins, those weird looking flowering structures that hang down from the tips of shrubs and trees. Alders have ‘em, willows have ‘em, even oak trees have ‘em.

Catkins are unmistakable to identify, the most common one probably being pussy-willow although that one doesn’t have the long, hanging male flowers so characteristic of the others.

And it is indeed the male flowers that catch our attention, as the diminutive female flowers tend to stick tight to the branch, content to wait until a pollen-laden spring zephyr swirls by.

First described in English at “catkins” in 1578 by Henry Lyte, the word is derived from what is known as the Middle Dutch “katteken” or kitten’s tail. So I guess the soft rounded catkins of the pussy-willow are a fairly given name as well.

An interesting thing about these trees and shrubs that bear catkins, is that some species have both male and female flowers on the same tree, while others, such as willows, have totally male trees and totally female trees.

Wind is required for pollination of the most of these species, yet willow tend to require insect pollinators, which explains why honey bees and others are so drawn to these early spring flowers.

For those of you who take note and make notes of spring things and when they happen, will no doubt have noted a few phenotypical relationships. I know… pheno-what?

The study of phenology is the exercise of seeing what happens in nature, at what time and under what conditions. Is there a reason for synchronized timing of events? Does it matter? What else is happening at this very same time that may, or may not, be related to the bursting forth of a birch catkin?

My observations have shown that the day the alder catkins burst open, is also the day the ruffed grouse start drumming, the common snipe start winnowing, and the wild turkeys start gobbling. (OK, maybe not right exactly on the very same day, but close enough, you know?)

It seems like a package deal, get one and the other spring things are thrown in!

But there is a truth to this dance of natural events, this intricate and entwined concert of relationships. Perhaps it’s photo period, the measured amount of available sunlight that warms the soil and also stimulates the pituitary gland in the ruffed grouse. Perhaps there is a survival link in that the flowers that need the pollinators that need the nectar so both shall live and reproduce.

Many people overlook the catkins until it’s seed dispersal time. Poplar tress are well and infamously known for their fuzzy grey seed pods to drift onto decks and cover pond surfaces. Oak catkins are all but invisible until the resulting seed, an acorn, pops you on the head in late summer (or you step on it hidden within the unmowed grass).

Other trees have real flowers, with petals and stamens and anthers and everything botanically required for seed production, but they tend to wait until the last of the killing frosts are gone. Catkins, lacking delicate parts, can tough out a few days of chill rain and a small flurry of lacklustre snow.

Look to the wet ditches for willows and the shores of beaver ponds for alders; front yards for birch trees and back yards for oaks. Ahh, but should you quest for a peek at the catkins of beaked hazel (the female flowers are exquisitely small and ruby-red), an arduous trek is ahead of you to visit the Canadian Shield environs.

In my research for this article, I tripped over a few fairly technical documents regarding catkins. There is great history and some ongoing debate regarding catkin-bearing plants as to who is related to who and which one is descended from which branch (bad pun) of their botanical family tree (another bad pun).

By example, I dare you to throw out the following quote regarding catkin bearing plants at your next dinner party and still expect the crowd to stick around for after-dinner drinks:

Friends, as you may well have heard, “the heterogeneous family Flacourtiaceae is now dismembered, and its members are placed in other families, mainly the Salicaceae and Achariaceae. The family Salicaceae, as now circumscribed in the broad sense, is a more homogeneous group of about 1000 species in approximately 55 genera.”

So, what say you to that, my good friends? (I’d allow a good two hours for debate until one side or the other storms out.)

The catkins will be flowering for a couple of weeks and then it’s on to the next act of the spring concert: woodcock peenting and spring peepers peeping. Eyes and ears open folks!