When did you see your first hazel catkins of the spring? That will depend on where you live, because this winter (2014-2015) – which was mild until December at least – some were in bloom just after Christmas in southwest England.

And by the first week in January, there were catkins in the English Midlands: it seems that this is an early catkin year.

Catkins are the male flowers of the hazel tree and are really signs of winter rather than spring. They first appear as the leaves fall in October or November, like small greyish sausages on the ends of twigs.

In most years toward the end of January they begin to lengthen into the well-known 'lamb’s-tails' and turn golden with pollen. This pollen blows on spring breezes to fertilise the female flowers, which look entirely different: like tiny crimson sea-anemones near the leaf buds.

Wind pollination is important to hazel as well as other British plants, including trees like willows, birch, alder and poplars. Vast quantities of hazel pollen has to be produced to ensure that at least some will reach its small target and produce a hazel nut in late summer. 

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Illustration by Rose Sanderson