by James Alexander-Sinclair

We were sitting in my in-laws' kitchen, when suddenly it seemed that a great cloud of smoke blew across the garden...

Hazel catkinsCatkin. Oh, catkin what is it for? Don't worry, that isn't the beginning of some mawkish ode in the style of William McGonagall, but merely a casual botanical question. The dangling, butter yellow hazel catkin is a particularly lovely sight at this time of year. Ever wondered why it appears so early and what it is for? If you have no wish to know, or are easily offended by descriptions of sexual congress between plants, then this would be a good point to stop reading and mosey off somewhere else on the internet. Might I recommend this as an alternative?

The catkin is the male part of the plant. Its job is to fertilise the female part (which are little red tufts) of the plant and therefore create hazelnuts. All very straightforward, but there is a small problem: the hazel (unlike many plants) cannot fertilise itself, so needs to find another tree. How to disseminate pollen from one tree to another? Many plants use insects bees, wasps, moths, butterflies or ants while others draw on the services of humming birds or bats, although these plants are unlikely to be found in Britain. The hazel uses a much more basic method: anemophily, or wind pollination.

So, very sensibly, the hazel catkins appear at a time of year when there is certain to be some decent breezes and also before either its parent or neighbours have produced any leaves. This means that any pollen is less likely to get snared up in a load of leaves and therefore stands much more chance of travelling further. Birches and alders (cousins of the hazel) play much the same game, as do many conifers and most grasses (albeit later in the year).

I was reminded of all this botany by a peculiar event. We were sitting in my in-laws' kitchen, when suddenly it seemed that a great cloud of smoke blew across the garden. Eager to ensure that there were no smoldering buildings, or even a child enjoying a crafty cigar, I went to investigate. It was pollen, great billowing clouds of the stuff blowing off a large yew. This tree was also taking advantage of the last few weeks of leaflessness to spread its genes far and wide.

Nature is so very clever. Maybe catkins do deserve a sonnet after all…

Oh Catkin facing winter blow

Doth spread its pollen to (and fro)

Where waits another, all fecund

De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum…

On second thoughts, I should probably stick to gardening…

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Talkback: Pollen
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Gardeners' World Web User 25/03/2009 at 10:41

Very interesting, especially the word "anemophily". You should definitely stick to gardening

Gardeners' World Web User 25/03/2009 at 12:48

If you are interested at recording flowering times, then you might be interested in phenology. The UK phenology network (http://www.naturescalendar.org.uk/) are always looking for recorders. Birches will soon be flowering. Birch pollen is allergenic and affects about a quarter of hay fever sufferers. The BBC have a pollen forecast for those who want to follow the progress of the birch pollen season.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/03/2009 at 12:29

Yes I have a large yew tree in my garden which nearley killed me the other day I walked into a cloud of dust from the tree it closed up my throat so i could not get my breath i think it acts like an anaesthetic very dangerous mike

Gardeners' World Web User 06/04/2009 at 18:34

I grew daffodils last year, twins, triplets and quads. This year they are coming up again in a cluster but with even more buds on them.

Gardeners' World Web User 25/04/2009 at 12:14

I know when the catkins are out because my hayfever starts. My veg plot is under two birches so I often end up weeding or harvesting whilst crying my eyes out. Didn't know the yew would do the same

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