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A Purrfect Flower for Winter? Try the Catkin PDF Print E-mail
Written by LEE REICH   
Thursday, 03 February 2011 07:38

Plant lovers and feline lovers unite: Some catkins have come out. And are they a welcome sight, being pretty much the only sign of plant activity outdoors this time of year.

Okay, I admit the feline part is a stretch. The "cat" in "catkin" comes merely from the way the catkins droop or poke up from stems like the furry tails of cats.

For those unfamiliar with catkins, allow me to make the introductions. A catkin is a long cluster of very small flowers, none of which have petals. While many flowers have both male and female parts, catkins are unisexual, either male or female.

Catkins are common among trees and shrubs native to temperate climates. The ones catching my eye this month were dangling from the stems of my filbert trees. These are male catkins so, in time, will be shedding pollen - and plenty of it. A single walnut catkin, for example, releases about two million pollen grains.

The reason for those copious amounts is that trees and shrubs with catkins are pollinated by the wind, and wind is a relatively inefficient way to transport pollen. Wind can carry pollen only a few hundred feet, and then it's mostly hit or miss whether that pollen lands on a receptive female flower.

Contrast this with insect pollination, where pollen might be carried many miles and then to a specific kind of flower. Insect pollination is much more common in the tropics, and representatives of wind-pollinated, temperate-climate plants typically become insect-pollinated when they evolve in the tropics.

All this pollen does cast a slight cloud over these plants. Some people are allergic to the pollen - the first outdoor allergen of the season. Don't worry yet, though; the catkins are only now expanding and have yet to spread their magic powder about.