Lamb’s-tails – what a wonderfully appropriate name for the hazel catkins that are now adorning our hedgerows and woodland edges.
More a bush than a tree, the hazel is a fundamental keystone of our countryside yet so often over-looked because for much of the year it is rather inconspicuous. But all this changes in early spring when their hanging lime-coloured catkins decorate the branches like shiny baubles on a Christmas tree. It is as much a sign of the new season of life as frog spawn or early-emerging daffodils.
These dangly catkins are the male flowers, but look closer at the branches and the tiny bud-like red female flowers can be seen too. Pollinated by the wind, these will develop by autumn into small hazelnut clusters. Although productivity never seems to be great and I often find hazels in autumn that are completely nutless. The trees that do bear nuts are a magnet for agile wood mice and bank voles, the neatly chiselled shells lying below testament to their nocturnal foraging activities.
The hazel is the classic tree for coppicing, its grey-barked rods having been used since the earliest of times for basket work and building. These pliable yet tough poles made the ideal material for creating the framework for houses and fences. A hazel rod was also said to protect against evil spirits and was pretty useful for water-divining too.
Alders are also beginning to produce catkins, although the male flowers lack the vibrancy of those found on hazel. But in saying that, the alder can bring colour in a rather more unusual way. One fell across a road near my home during a recent gale and was quickly put to the saw. Now, every time I drive past I see the most extraordinary reddish-orange hue from the freshly cut roundels by the roadside. At one time this striking feature of new-cut wood was thought to symbolise bleeding and as such the tree was shrouded in fearful superstition. Over time this deep colour fades to a paler brown, making the wood much sought after by furniture makers who, quick on the marketing uptake, brand it as ‘Scots mahogany’.
The alder is our quintessential riverside tree and copes well in such poor and waterlogged conditions by having the capability to absorb nitrogen from the air, which in turn enhances the surrounding soil fertility. In effect, it is a pioneering tree that can colonise areas of bog and over time create the right conditions for the succession of other types of vegetation.
Alders also help to prevent erosion of riverbanks and, like the hazel, is really a tree that should be revered as one of our shining stars of the countryside. In winter, I particularly enjoy watching the feeding flocks of siskins and redpolls that dance along the riverside alder tops in search of their small seed cones. These little finches twitter in enjoyed harmony and no matter how bitter the weather, the alders are always productive and willingly give-up their precious bounty.