I’m not sure if this is just a particularly good year for catkins, or if I’ve simply never noticed them properly before, but they are everywhere at the moment.
I always think of catkins as belonging to hazel trees, but apparently they are also found on hornbeam, birch, willow, sweet chestnut and poplar, amongst others. When I was growing up in the English Midlands, we used to call them lambs’ tails, and it seems that the word catkin is derived from the old Dutch word katteken, meaning kitten, because they look like kittens’ tails.
They come in a surprising range of sizes and colours, including the pink ones shown below, which I believe are alder catkins (although I’m happy to be corrected).
The purpose of catkins is not, of course, to look pretty, but to play a part in the reproduction of the tree. The catkins are the male flowers, and their job is to scatter their pollen onto the much smaller and less noticeable female flowers.
I remember this not from biology lessons, but from reading Women in Love by D H Lawrence, proving that time spent reading a good book is never time wasted.
Ursula Brangwen, a teacher, is getting her class to drawn catkins.
“A SCHOOL-DAY was drawing to a close. In the class-room the last lesson was in progress, peaceful and still. It was elementary botany. The desks were littered with catkins, hazel and willow, which the children had been sketching. But the sky had come overdark, as the end of the afternoon approached: there was scarcely light to draw any more. Ursula stood in front of the class, leading the children by questions to understand the structure and the meaning of the catkins.”
School Inspector Rupert Birkin drops by, closely followed by his lover Hermione Roddick (schools seem to have been much less concerned about complete strangers popping into lessons in those days) and they discuss the role of catkins in reproduction, in what can only be described as a highly sexually charged manner.
“`Do you know the little red ovary flowers, that produce the nuts? Have you ever noticed them?’ he asked her. And he came close and pointed them out to her, on the sprig she held.
`No,’ she replied. `What are they?’
`Those are the little seed-producing flowers, and the long catkins, they only produce pollen, to fertilise them.’
`Do they, do they!’ repeated Hermione, looking closely.
`From those little red bits, the nuts come; if they receive pollen from the long danglers.’
`Little red flames, little red flames,’ murmured Hermione to herself. And she remained for some moments looking only at the small buds out of which the red flickers of the stigma issued.
`Aren’t they beautiful? I think they’re so beautiful,’ she said, moving close to Birkin, and pointing to the red filaments with her long, white finger.
`Had you never noticed them before?’ he asked.
`No, never before,’ she replied.
`And now you will always see them,’ he said.
`Now I shall always see them,’ she repeated. `Thank you so much for showing me. I think they’re so beautiful — little red flames –‘
Her absorption was strange, almost rhapsodic. Both Birkin and Ursula were suspended. The little red pistillate flowers had some strange, almost mystic- passionate attraction for her.”
I have the feeling that her mind has wandered off topic slightly. There’s lots more in a similar vein, and the book also contains the infamous naked-male-wrestling-on-the-hearthrug scene. I think it must be out of copyright, as there are numerous full text versions available on the web, including this one.