Location: Red Lodge, MT
I always smile at the thought of catkins, one of the sure signs of spring. These delicate two-inch fingers hang from every branch of the Quaking Aspens by my deck, but they don’t last long. I noticed the whitish bits of fluff on Monday. By Friday, the few that remained clung to sporadic twigs like dry, shriveled worms.
A catkin, also called an ament, is actually a skinny, gracefully drooping flower cluster with either very tiny or no visible petals. Its name comes from the Dutch word, katteken, which means kitten’s tail. They look like the tail of a miniature kitty and often feel as soft.
Many trees and shrubs bear catkins in the spring, including birch, alder, willow and hickory, though not all catkins arch downward. In some plants, only the male flowers cluster in catkins (the drooping kind). Others have female catkins, which are usually smaller, rounder, upright and turn into nuts later in the year. In yet others, such as Quaking Aspens, both male and female flowers are in catkins.
Aspen trees are “dioecious”, which means each tree is either male or female, unlike most trees, which are “monoecious” (both sexes occur on the same tree). Both male and female aspens produce catkins in early spring before leafing out. Pollinated female catkins release microscopic hairy seeds in early summer weighing about 1/10,000th gram. If the wind doesn’t quickly deposit the seed on a moist spot with favorable soil and weather conditions – pretty low odds in the Rocky Mountains – it won’t germinate. That’s okay. Aspens propagate mainly by growing new shoots off their root systems.
Do you know other species that proliferate in multiple ways?