If you walk too fast in spring, splattering mud along the trail or searching for the season’s first Hermit Thrush, you will miss the fireworks within your reach. Slow your pace, watch for a gray shrub not much taller than you. The drooping catkins are your first hint. But cast a careful gaze for an April explosion, the tiny flower of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).
The eruption here is what botanists call a pistillate catkin — a bud that holds the female flower. We’re seeing not petals here, but rather her elongated ruby stigmas, each small enough to thread a needle, emerging to collect pollen from separate male flowers. I shot this one in full bloom on April 21, 2013, along the North Branch of the Winooski River in Montpelier, Vermont, at the bridge to North Branch Nature Center.
The male flowers reside in what we call staminate catkins, which form in autumn. By mid April they elongate and cast their pollen grains to the winds. In the three images below, you’ll find the staminate catkin (on the left) not yet producing pollen (click the image to see the accompanying female flower as well). Next is another twig with the staminate catkin extended, “spent” of its pollen. (It does not pollinate its “kin” female, but rather a female flower on another beaked hazelnut shrub — an expansion of genetic diversity we call “outcrossing.”) And, finally, pictured to the right: an actual beaked hazelnut, which tends to get eaten by squirrels, grouse, turkeys or bears before we usually find them.
There you have it: Fireworks — and all the results — within your grasp come April.