Looking for an early spring flower fix?
Though perhaps not as obvious as the later blooming daffodils and tulips, catkins are amongst some of the most subtly beautiful flowers out there.
The word catkin comes from the old dutch kattekan meaning kitten. This refers to the rather adorable idea that these flower clusters resemble kitten tails. For once, this botanical word is actually a useful descriptor. While perhaps just a little bit less cute than a kitten tail, these clusters of flowers create a distinct inflorescence.
Usually found on trees and a few shrubs, these flowers appear quite early in the season. A prime example is the pussy willow, and in fact a number of the willows. The grayish-white hairs that serve to protect and insulate the nascent flower buds are about the most awesome consistency out there (even softer than a kitten!).
However that rather gorgeous fuzz is not the main event. As the air begins to warm, the petal-less flowers bloom, revealing yellow stamens and eventually the darker and rather chubby female parts.
Catkins can be male, female, or have both parts present on the same flower (scandalous, I know).
In some plants only the males form catkins, and as with many circumstances in nature they tend to be a bit showier. The catkins of alder, for example, are big and droopy, with a reddish tinge, while the female flowers result in a cone-like structure.
In hazelnuts, the persistent male catkins pollinate teeny bright red female flowers. Oaks are similar to hazelnut, but the male catkins are so prolific they look like mini-chandeliers, and can coat the ground with pollen.
If you are a resident of the northeast, you might also come across one of the few smaller species that make catkins, Sweetfern. The male and female flowers show up around the same time the leaf buds do, and combine to produce a bristly green fruit later in the season.
While the willows may feel the best, my favorite catkins are found on cottonwoods. These are one of the more egalitarian trees, as they male and female catkins are of about equal size. But the males are the most colorful, ranging from bright red to a deep grapy-purple. The females have their own display though, and later in the summer are responsible for the idyllic white fluff you see floating about.
Some families and species that produce catkins
Willow Family, Salicaceae
Willow, Cottonwood, Poplar
Betulaceae, Birch Family
Alder, Birch, Hazel
Juglandaceae, Walnut Family
Fagaceae, Oak Family
Myricaceae, Bay Family
Moraceae, Mulberry Family
So they next time you go to pick your botanist sweetheart some flowers, say it with catkins. I promise they'll be impressed!
How to Learn More