HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Caterpillary

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Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) flowers in Spring. Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore College PA

Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) flowers in Spring. Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore College PA

Everywhere I go people are sneezing.  Spring seemed to happen all at once and the pollen from everything is coating cars, pavement and, apparently, nostrils in a dusky green film.  Funny how people lament the late start to spring wondering where all the flowers are and then almost as soon as they show their cheerful colors people are wishing the blooms banished from the face of the earth.

It is true in the earliest weeks of spring there can be a lull in blooms. It is the time when the crystal magic of winter has passed but the jewel tones of spring haven’t yet exploded onto the scene. People are desperate for something that shows life will go on. This is when it is important to get out and look for the details. Once you start looking closer you start to notice the beauty in the subtle details of leaves emerging and of flowers that don’t need any extra attention.

Of course by now that lull has passed. Virginia bluebells, violets, trilliums and marsh marigolds are all but screaming their presence in their showy way. Plants with catkins remain quiet and subtle, letting the showoffs attract the pollinators – who needs them?! And until the pollen starts blowing in the wind no one notices them.

Catkins are wind-pollinated flowers. Catkins have emerged on the oak trees around here right now and many many people experience nostril distress with all this pollen floating in the air. Just like Ragweed, these flowers aren’t showy. They don’t need to be. They can reproduce every time the wind blows (I think I know some people like that…) Showy flowers are showy because they need to attract pollinators. Catkins are strictly functional, unless you are desperately looking for signs of spring and then they become quite lovely in their unique caterpillary way.

White Oak (Quercus alba) catkins and newly emerging leaves.

White Oak (Quercus alba) catkins and newly emerging leaves.

They are flowers… really!

Catkins are spike-like flower structures made up of scaly, small leaf-like structures surrounding even smaller male or female flowers. Most frequently on plants that have them, catkins are either male or female and are wind pollinated. If you want to think of them as an accessory on the plants they are sort of like fringe or tassels hanging from the branches (and according to the media, these trees and shrubs are right on the style trend!) Don’t think you have ever seen one? I am sure you have:

While exploring the Barnes Foundation Arboretum in early spring, I noticed a grouping of trees and shrubs all displaying catkins. It was interesting to take a look at the diversity of these flowers up close because, honestly, from far away they all really look the same. Upon closer inspection one notices a subtle graceful beauty to these utilitarian appendages. Many catkins overwinter in compact form and expand as the days get longer and the temperature gets higher.

The Birches:

 The Hazelnuts:

The Oaks:

And some others:

Males and Females

Typically the flowers on catkin bearing plants are either male or female. Both male and female flowers occur on the same plant but are much different in appearance, and function. Many catkin-bearing plants only have male catkins and the female flowers are single flowers or cones. Poplars have both male and female catkins.

Teeny Red Girl Flowers

Fat Green Girl Cones

Just because catkins don’t have pollen attractive to pollinators doesn’t mean wildlife doesn’t find them useful. In addition to the extinct passenger pigeon, who was known to feed on these dangling snacks, currently existing birds such as Goldfinch, Woodcock and Pine Siskins find these worm-shaped delicacies irresistible.

If only I had a picture of a goldfinch with a catkin in its mouth...no such luck. Here's one perched atop a Great Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) Seedhead. Private Landscape NE NJ

If only I had a picture of a goldfinch with a catkin in its mouth…no such luck. Here’s one perched atop a Great Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) Seedhead. Private Landscape NE NJ

Once again I encourage you to take in the subtleties of nature. To marvel at the mechanics. To appreciate the beauty. Even when, especially when, nature is causing some temporary discomfort.

The large catkins of Giant Filbert (Corylus maxima) Barnes Arboretum

The large catkins of Giant Filbert (Corylus maxima) Barnes Arboretum

One thought on “Caterpillary

  1. Pingback: Vulnerability | HORT travels

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