The few spring flowers in bloom at the moment are nearly all at ground level, but there is one other early bloomer much in evidence just now, which tends to be on display at eye level and above.
I am talking about one of our smallest native trees – the hazel. The male catkins which began to develop in the autumn are now in full flower. They are also known as lambs’ tails for obvious reasons and the stamens in these creamy yellow catkins ripen when the temperature rises above freezing, splitting open lengthways to release their pollen.
The female catkins are small and brown with crimson styles and generally ripen after the males of the same tree, which prevents self pollination.
At least two hazel trees growing together are needed for fertilisation and the production of nuts.
In the Borders, hazel is most often found on steep banks, often under oak, which haven’t been cleared for cultivation.
It used to be widely coppiced and was much in demand for producing straight stems for making hurdles for fencing, while the nuts were a great source of oil, fat and carbohydrate for humans and livestock alike. Nowadays, the straight stems are much sought after locally by stick dressers to make crooks and walking sticks. The oil from a single nut rubbed over the surface of a stick will give it an excellent polish.
Man is not the only beneficiary from this small but important tree. Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the large emerald, small white wave, barred umber and nut-tree tussock. In managed woodland where hazel is coppiced, the open wildflower-rich habitat supports many species of butterfly, particularly fritillaries. Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds such as the willow warbler.
Hazel nuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays and a number of small mammals. Hazel flowers provide early pollen as a food for bees.
However, bees find it difficult to collect hazel pollen and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the wind pollinated hazel has pollen that is not sticky and actually repels one grain against another.
The trunks are often covered in mosses, liverworts and lichens, and the fiery milkcap fungi grows in the soil beneath.
Don’t forget to e-mail me if you see anything interesting this spring, on firstname.lastname@example.org