Aspens, cottonwoods, poplars – all are names for certain species of trees in the genus Populus. These trees, as well as birch, hickory, oak and willow trees, produce their flowers on spikes called catkins. Telling the catkins of these trees from one another is challenging, to say the least, yet some of NC’s readers correctly identified the catkins in the photograph as those of Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata. This tree blooms for one to two weeks in the spring and its mature male catkins open and extend to two to four inches in length. The wind, as opposed to insects, disperses the light, fluffy yellow pollen as the catkins dangle in the breeze. Some of the pollen remains intact even after the tree has shed its spent catkins onto the ground.
Because Bigtooth Aspen, and most species of Populus, are dioecious (male and female flowers develop on separate trees), there are only male flowers in this photo and beneath this tree. After fertilization, female flowers remain on the tree and form capsules which contain several small seeds embedded in tufts of fine, white hair. They will fill the air in several weeks looking like bits of floating cotton.
The previous “bud scale” post engaged readers to an extent that made me feel another post with additional buds to scrutinize would be welcome. Apologies to non-woody plant aficionados!
When identifying woody plants in winter, one takes advantage of everything a tree or shrub has to tell you: bud/branch arrangement (opposite/alternate), bark, silhouette and terminal buds. Buds are so revealing that they alone can immediately tell you what species you are seeking to identify. Is there one bud at the tip of each branch (willows) or multiple terminal buds (red oak)? Are there bud scales (no-witch hazel; yes- bigtooth aspen)? If so, what are their number (willows – one) and arrangement (overlapping, like shingles – red oak)? Are the buds red (striped maple), brown (witch hazel), yellow (bitternut hickory), green, or some combination of these colors? Are they pointed (bigtooth aspen) or rounded (willow)? Every species of tree has buds with a unique combination of these characteristics. Now is the time to observe them, as some will soon start to open.
Even with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow on the ground it is possible to find signs, such as pussy willows, that spring really is around the corner. What we call pussy willows are, in fact, the soft, silvery hairs that insulate the emerging spike of flowers, or catkin, within a willow flower bud. A willow catkin consists of all male or all female flowers. The first catkins to emerge in the spring are usually males. The hairs, or “pussies,” that emerge when willow buds first open trap the heat from the sun and help warm the center of the catkins, where the flowers’ reproductive parts are located. This trapped heat promotes the development of the pollen (or in female flowers, the ovules) of the flowers deep within the hairs. Eventually the reproductive parts of the willow flowers – the stamens and pistils – emerge, but until they do, we get to enjoy their silvery fur coats.