Catkins of a different kind

While enjoying a day of furlough from my university job, my son and I hiked through part of Crystal Lake Park in northeast Urbana, 90-acres of land surrounding Crystal Lake, a body of water formed more than 100 years ago by the damming of the Saline Branch. The park is home to Busey Woods, the remains of the Big Grove oak hickory forest.

Some of the stately oak and hickory trees that made up the original Big Grove still stand, their craggy trunks rising solidly out of the snow covered park. But my eyes and lens continually focused on a tree I’d never seen before. It lined the banks of the lake and river that feeds it, its branches heavily drooped with the most unique combination of fruiting bodies.

The branches of the tree were decorated with what appeared to be both long, thin catkins and short, plump cones.

From a distance, it was difficult to see any detail against the white background of the snow-covered lake.


The bark of the trees was a fissured, fractured pattern circling around branch knots.


Upon closer inspection, the longer bodies were most definitely catkins, while the smaller ones looked like cones, but were softer and less scaled than true cones.

When I returned home, I immediately grabbed my Sibley Guide to Trees. A quick flip through the pages and the familiar look of the longer catkins led me to hone in on the birch family. That’s where I found the section on alders — a subset of birches — where Sibley notes that alders are known for the ability to fix nitrogen from the air, fertilizing and stabilizing barren areas and riverbanks.

Several species of alder have the characteristic long, narrow (male) catkins and corresponding short, plump (female) catkins. As a best guess, I’d say the alders outlining Crystal Lake are European or Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa), based primarily on the craggy bark and area of distribution.

I plan to return to the park in the spring and summer to examine and photograph the alders along the water, talk to the Busey Woods naturalists to confirm the species. But whatever their botanical name, I know one thing for certain. Alder is one of the more unusual trees I have run across, and look forward to learning more about these catkins of a different kind.

Published by Christopher Tidrick

Be real. Love always. Share beauty. Lead well. Learn more.

One Comment

  1. Nice mystery-solving! It's pretty certian it's an alder, but it might be Alnus cordata (Italian alder) which is described as having the largest fruiting cones of all the alders, and they resemble small pine cones… which your pictures really show!



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