Catkins are flow­ers, de­spite their un­usual ap­pear­ance

West Sussex Gazette - - COUNTRYFIL­E - CHAR­LOTTE OWEN WildCall of­fi­cer Sus­sex Wildlife Trust

It may not seem like the best time of year for botanis­ing but there are some un­usual flow­ers in bloom in Fe­bru­ary. Along­side the fa­mil­iar clumps of snow­drops, thou­sands of yel­low hazel catkins are ripen­ing in the win­ter sun­shine. They are flow­ers, de­spite ap­pear­ances.

A typ­i­cal flower has showy petals, some­times with an elab­o­rate pat­tern, a source of de­li­cious nec­tar and maybe an al­lur­ing scent, and these are all fea­tures de­signed to at­tract bees and other pol­li­na­tors.

But the hazel does not rely on in­sects for pol­li­na­tion, and there aren’t many around this early in the year, so it has no need to at­tract them. In­stead, the hazel re­lies on the wind and its flow­ers are de­signed ac­cord­ingly.

The catkins are the male flow­ers and they pro­duce co­pi­ous amounts of pow­dery yel­low pollen.

Each catkin ac­tu­ally con­sists of 240 in­di­vid­ual flow­ers ar­ranged on a dan­gling stem, and when fully ripe it only takes the slight­est touch to re­lease a cloud of mi­cro­scopic pollen grains.

These can be car­ried over a great dis­tance on a favourable breeze in the hope of reach­ing their in­tended tar­get, a fe­male hazel flower.

Of course, wind dis­per­sal can be a bit hap­haz­ard and a lot of the pollen will be wasted, land­ing on damp branches, stick­ing to spi­der webs or dust­ing un­sus­pect­ing birds – but the sheer vol­ume of pollen pro­duced helps im­prove the odds.

The fe­male flow­ers are tiny, so you’ll have to look a lot closer to spot them, but ev­ery hazel pro­duces both male catkins and fe­male flow­ers (but can­not pol­li­nate it­self ). The fe­male flow­ers are equally un­usual and re­sem­ble a scaly green bud with a bun­dle of del­i­cate red ten­drils emerg­ing from the top. These are the fe­male flower’s styles, or pollen tubes, and any wind-blown pollen grains that land on them will fer­tilise the flower and trig­ger the de­vel­op­ment of a hazel­nut.

Even the name is a bit strange. Catkin is de­rived from the Dutch word kat­teken, which means kit­ten, since the flow­ers look like fluffy kit­ten tails. They’re also known as lamb’s tails for the same rea­son, and this name has a stronger as­so­ci­a­tion with the on­set of spring.

Blue tit and catkins ©Ro­ger Wilmshurst Sus­sex Wildlife Trust

Hazel catkins ©Mark Monk-Terry Sus­sex Wildlife Trust

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