Jill Severn's Gardening Column

Plant sex

Featuring Hazel Catkins


Slowly but surely, the natural world is waking up. The chickens are getting up a little earlier and roosting a little later. Even the Americauna, who typically takes the whole winter off, laid one nice blue egg this week.

As I walk around the yard, I see bulbs coming up everywhere, new leaves on the Japanese anemones, and, of course, weeds getting a head start on their competitors.

But my favorite sign of a new growing season is the sight of catkins on our native hazelnut trees.

Catkins are ingenious plant parts. They are typically male – meaning producers of pollen, which is needed to fertilize the female plant parts that make seeds. This is the case with our bushy native hazel trees, whose barely noticeable flowers produce the hazelnuts that squirrels, humans, and blue jays enjoy. Catkins like these depend on the wind to carry the pollen to the flower.

Last week along the Chehalis-Western trail I saw two versions of them on hazel trees just a few fee apart. The catkins on the tree in shade were still small and tight; the one in a slightly sunnier spot had the relaxed and lengthened ones you see in the photo above.

They are so pretty I once brought some in and put them in a vase. Big mistake – they shed copious amounts of pollen all over the place. It’s a good thing no one in my house has allergies.

Pussy willows are probably the most famous catkins, and in certain spots, they are coming on too, though most are weeks away. I’ve read that they are male, and that female willows produce their girl parts a bit later in the spring. You would think that the male and female parts would want to show up at the same time and place, so I’m not sure how pussy willows get it on, so to speak, or even what female willows’ girl parts look like. It feels a little intrusive to investigate this, but I do plan to try.

Alders have a more sensible arrangement: male catkins are located close to the little female cones, so pollen and ovaries are close together. On your next walk, take a look – this is the only tree I know of that is deciduous (it has leaves that fall each autumn) and has cones. This time of year, it’s common to see twigs with last year’s cones on the ground, looking for a place to sprout more alders.

There are some bisexual catkins too; here’s a photo of some on a Sweet Chestnut tree.

If you find all this talk about plant sex confounding, you are not alone. Local naturalist Nancy Partlow emailed me a link to this wonderful explanation, written for novice beekeepers by Rusty Burlew.

Along the way, Burlew tells a story about teaching the facts of life about plant reproduction to a group of tough, tattooed prison inmates who flat out didn’t believe her: “First came flushed faces, uneasy shuffling, and silent gazes . . . Finally, the bravest among them said, ‘Aw cut it out. We ain’t stupid. Plants don’t got like sperm and stuff.’”

Burlew then proceeds to provide the plainest and clearest explanation of the facts of life in the plant world I’ve ever read – and her bee and flower photos are stunning. It’s worth reading more than once.

And yes, plants had sexual reproduction mastered long before humans came along. We just made reproduction so emotionally complicated that grown men are embarrassed to talk about it.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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  • KarenTvedt

    thank you for the smile this morning!

    Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Report this