Gateway to the Classics: Trees and Shrubs by Arabella B. Buckley
Trees and Shrubs by  Arabella B. Buckley

Trees with Catkin Flowers

The horse-chestnut is the only big English tree which has large flower-spikes. There are many pretty flowering shrubs in the hedge, such as the Blackthorn, the May, and the Guelder rose. But all the big trees have tiny flowers. As some of these trees flower before they open their leaves, you can see their blossoms. So we will look at a few.

If you live where there are many bees, and where there are any trees of the common Sallow Willow growing in the hedges, or the woods, go out some sunny day in March, and lie down under one of the trees and listen.

Before long you will bear a buzzing, which will go on as long as the sun is bright. For the bees have wakened from their long winter sleep, and want honey and pollen to make bee-bread. There are very few flowers open in March and, as the sweet smell of honey comes from the blossoms of the willow, the bees are quick to find them out.

Perhaps you will ask me how you are to know a Sallow Willow. You know it quite well, though you may not know the name. It is a big shrubby tree, with a purple-brown stem, which grows in the hedges and woods, and from which people cut branches before Palm Sunday, and call them palms.

All up the twigs you will see in March and April round soft bodies about as big as thimbles growing now on one side now on the other. It is into these that the bees are poking their heads. You remember the catkins which we saw on the nut-trees in Book I. These soft bodies clinging close to the willow stems are also catkins. In willows they stand up, instead of hanging down as they do on the nut-trees, and on the sallow willow they hug the stem.

But now I want you to look a little further. The tree under which you sit may have broad yellow catkins (2, plate, p. 20), and if you gather a branch and look closely at it, you will see the yellow anthers standing out all round the catkin. Children call these "golden palms." But you may find, not so very far away, another of the same kind of tree, on which the catkins are soft and grey (1, plate, p. 20). They are much longer and narrower than the golden catkins. Children call them "silver pussy-palms."


Swallow Willow

Gather a branch from each of these trees and take them to school. When you pick them to pieces, you will find that each catkin is made up of a number of tiny flowers. In the golden catkins each flower is only a little scaly leaf (L, 2) with two stamens growing on it. No! I forgot. There is something else, for at the bottom of each scaly leaf is a small cup (H), holding a drop of honey. So you see there are plenty of drops of honey in a catkin.


Flowers of the Swallow Willow

Then if you pick the silver-pussy-palm to pieces, you will find the same honey cup (H) at the bottom of the scale, but instead of stamens, there is a little seed-box or ovary (O) shaped like a bottle, with a crumpled stigma (S).

Now you see the use of the honey. As the dust-bags and the seed-boxes are on different trees, the flowers have to tempt the bees to carry the pollen. It is wise to plant willows near where bees are kept, for they get plenty of honey from them in the spring. The Osier willow, which grows in the marshes, and is used for making baskets, is in bloom at the same time as the sallow. But the common English willow which grows into a large tree, and the Crack willow whose branches break off so easily when you bend them, bloom later, when their narrow pointed leaves are out. They all bloom early, however, and when the tiny seeds covered with down are blown out of the catkins many a little bird uses them to line its nest.

Another tree, which blooms before its leaves come, is the English poplar, which grows by the streams, or in the woods. Poplars have their two kinds of flowers on different trees, like the willows. But they have no honey, and no bees come near them. I think that if you have any poplars in your woods and watch them, you will guess how they manage. For when the wild March winds are blowing, the long hanging catkins swing to and fro, and the dry pollen-dust is blown through the air from tree to tree.

I wonder if you know which tree I mean by the English poplar? Not those tall stiff trees which point straight up to the sky. Those come from Italy and are called Lombardy poplars. The English poplars are graceful trees with very broad leaves hanging on long stalks. The white poplar has soft white hairs under its leaves, and the leaves of the aspen or trembling poplar are silky underneath. The leaves turn on their long stalks when the wind blows and look very pretty as they show their white sides.


Twigs of English Poplar

One other tree you must look for, which has its stamens in long loose catkins and its ovary in a little bud with scales round it. This is our friend the oak after it has grown into a large tree. The oak flowers in the spring, just as the leaves are coming out. You will easily see the catkins waving in the wind, but the flowers which will grow into acorns are very small and grow singly, or in pairs, between the leaf-stalk and the stem. Each one has a number of small scales round it, which by-and-by will harden into the cup of the acorn.

But the oak is such an important tree that we must talk of it in a separate lesson.

Bring willow branches in March with stamen-catkins, and others with seed-forming catkins. Look for the honey cup. Bring leaves and flowers of the English poplar.

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