Spring is fast approaching and our attention is beginning to shift to emerging tree flowers. Among the first to appear are the many wind-pollinated species. Trees such as birches, hazel, oaks and willows have beautiful pendulous male catkins, or inflorescences, containing many scaly bracts (flowers) in place of petals seen on many insect-pollinated plants.

Another species that bears catkins is the alder, Alder glutinosa, common on river banks across much of Europe. They may not capture our attention to the same degree as the yellow ‘lamb’s tails’ catkins of hazel, but alder catkins are just as beautiful. Use a magnifying glass, or even better a microscope, to study a single catkin and its many bracts and you will enter another world.

Sarah Simblet working in pencil on the alder catkin drawing

Sarah Simblet has started work on a drawing of an alder catkin, which although only 5cm (2″) long in real life, will be large enough to fill a double page spread in The New Sylva book. She is using a binocular microscope provided kindly by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, which allows Sarah to work at this scale.

The photo shows an early stage of the drawing as Sarah is working on the structure of the illustration. She is working with pencil, while the trusty goose feather that she uses to sweep away the rubbings is close to hand. She’s had the same feather for 20 years! Under the heat of the microscope light the bracts were maturing and beginning to open, releasing their pollen. Once that Sarah is happy with the form of the drawing she will use pen and ink to provide the detail.

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