While big, showy petals may well catch our eye during the summer months, don’t overlook the equally impressive array of catkins that begin their pendulous displays in the winter period. These filamentous flowers persist well into spring, and although they may not bring bold blocks of pink, blue or orange, their trump card is their ability to appear on bare branches, while hot-house flowers are still slumbering in their beds.
The key species
Catkins are, in fact, the male flowering structures of certain plants. For once in life, the females take a back seat when it comes to putting on a colourful and spectacular display. The fluffy flowers are so-shaped because they are packed with pollen-bearing filaments. Instead of relying on insects, catkin-bearing plants are wind-pollinated. The flowers are designed to dangle so that the lightest breeze will shake them to release their precious pollen. Birch, hazel, hornbeam and willow commonly produce showy catkins. The native silver birch, Betula pendula, produces abundant male blooms, but for something that bit special, why not seek out Betula luminifera with pendulous catkins to 3 inches long? You’re spoilt for choice with willows – Salix caprea, S. hastata and S. x tsugualensis will all give you a great show, but for something a little different, consider planting S. gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ with its jet black flowers. The male selection of Garrya elliptica wins hand-down on length, with tassles easily 6 inches long, while you can’t beat the hop hornbeam, Ostrya virginiana for full-on plumpness.