IF YOU WALK TOO FAST, 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. Below is the happy couple, on April 16, although he’s not yet producing pollen. Below this shot is another twig with the male catkin extended, “spent” of its pollen. He does not pollinate his kin female, but rather a female flower on another beaked hazelnut shrub – an expansion of genetic diversity we call “outcrossing.” And, finally, pictured at the bottom of this post is the result of all this leafless pollinating: an actual beaked hazelnut fruit, which tends to get eaten by squirrels, grouse, turkeys or bears before we find them.