It is the Hazel catkin, which recently with warmer winters, has even been making appearances in December. Catkins are flowers, though some people may‘ not think of them as such because they do not have the normal structure with sepals and petals and the naughty bits in the middle. This is because they are wind pollinated flowers and so have no need to be brightly coloured to attract the bees and other pollinators, nor do they smell for the same reason.Lots of trees such as Alder, Willow Oak and Poplar have the same arrangement.
The Hazel catkin is in fact the male flower and is simply lots and lots of anthers which release clouds of pollen that blow about in the wind. This is why they flower now because it is windy and because there are no leaves on the trees which would interrupt the free flow of the pollen, and reduce its chances of finding the female flower.
The female flower is very small and quite hard to find, they look like a little bud with tiny red wispy bits sticking out. These red wispy bits are the female naughty bits called the stigmas and if a pollen grain ends up on these bits then it grows a pollen tube which is microscopic so you wont see it. This tube connects the pollen grain down to the ovule and when that link has been made the male nucleus in the pollen grain which contains the genetic material can pass down this tube and combine with the female nucleus in the ovule. That’s it job done and six months later a little hazel nut will be formed. With luck this will fall off or be taken by a squirrel and buried and then forgotten about and in the following Spring a new Hazel bush will start to grow.
At this time of year it is easy to spot the hazel bushes, which in the Poitou Charentes region are quite common in the hedge rows and on the edges of the numerous small woods that dot this region. In the sunshine and with a light wind the individual catkins dance about and look quite spectacular. They are a particular favourite of mine because they are one of the first signs that we have turned the corner and Spring is not far away.