Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Corral of Catkins

Weeping Willow in wind
This group of early spring flowers is quickly fading from our gardens and greenspaces now, but I thought I would corral them up and introduce them before they leave!

Catkins are among the earliest blooming flowers, because (as I mentioned in a previous post, News for the Greenery-Starved Folks) they rely on the wind that comes through bare branches to spread their pollen, instead of relying primarily on insect pollinators that have not yet emerged.

Flowers clustered on the pendant tassels have no petals, and often bear only male organs (anthers with pollen on them), which become highly visible on willow catkins as they open up. Female flowers may become seed-storing cones, as on some Alders, or develop fluffy seeds, as on some aspen.

These are female catkins with seeds developed (male catkins are also produced). Stands of Quaking Aspen trees are often just one organism, with many trunks connected by one root system. On the west coast, it is rare that they make flowers and seeds, as they propagate mainly by root. Here I found the ground littered with these fuzzy catkins.
Many catkin-bearing plants are large trees common to wetland areas or forests, but a handful of them make great garden specimens. Here are a few often sold at nurseries, according to the size of your space:
For small spaces: Garrya elliptica (Silk Tassel Bush), Nettle/ Coleus (Yes, some herbacious plants have catkins too!), Salix gracilistyla (Black Pussy Willow)
The sunlight (and all the rain we've been having) is helping these pussy willows open up.
 For medium spaces: Corylus avelana (Common Hazel, which produces attractive hazelnuts), Corylus contorta (Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, which gets both its names from its twisting, contorted growth habit), Betula pendula (Weeping Birch) or Betula pubescens (White/ Downy Birch), Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam)

The Balsam Poplar has fuzzy red catkins and buds that smell like balsam.
For large spaces: Salix babylonica or alba (Weeping Willow), Ostrya virginiana (Easten Hophornbeam, with shaggy bark and fruit that looks like hops), and many more.

These male Alder (Alnus maximowiczii) flowers are waiting with pollen exposed for the wind to cross their path.

Alnus sieboldiana (Japanese Green Alder)
This Hazel Alder (Alnus serrulata) bears male catkins in threesomes alongside threesomes of female flower clusters.

A Common Hazel in the woods bears bright pink, single female flowers to receive pollen from the male catkins below.


  1. To me, catkins are like a garden's fancy wear -- you know, like cocktail dresses!

  2. cdavisonwilliams@gmail.comApril 30, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    I've always love catkins (don't know if my nasal passages have always felt the same, though) - great to learn more about how they propagate.

  3. Great information! Mother nature is so versatile - she sure knows how to get the job done!

  4. Hi Kate, thank you for such an interesting and informed post, and making the distinction between seeds that rely on the wind for dispersal and those depending on insects. I'm so pleased to have discovered your blog. cheers, catmint

  5. Patricia, I can see what you mean and it makes me smile! I've always thought catkins would make lovely earrings.
    Claire, once that pollen hits the wind, there's no telling how many allergies are set off! It's interesting though, how we tend to pick male (pollen bearing specimens) over female (fruit bearing specimens) for our gardens whenever there is a choice between one or the other.
    HolleyGarden, thanks, and I agree! Catkins are a great example of how diverse flowering plants can be.
    Catmint, I'm glad you found my blog too!


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