As the last vestiges of winter retreat from Fairbanks, Alaska, the taiga bursts into a flurry of life. Among the first heralds of spring are the humble willow catkins, also known as ‘pussy willows’ or ‘spring messengers.’ Their appearance is as brief as it is beautiful, making them a fascinating subject for macro photography.
Before we delve into micro-world and macro photos, let’s take a step back and ask a simple question: what are willow catkins, exactly?
Catkins are unique flower clusters found on certain trees and shrubs, and willows (genus Salix) are among the best-known of these. The term ‘catkin’ comes from the Dutch word ‘katteken‘, meaning ‘kitten’, due to their resemblance to a kitten’s tail.
Willows are dioecious, meaning individual trees are male or female. Both produce catkins, but their appearance and purpose differ significantly. Male catkins are generally larger and more showy, covered with yellow, pollen-producing anthers. On the other hand, female catkins are green and less flashy, designed to catch pollen with their sticky stigmas. In rare circumstances, they can be both, sometimes even on the same catkin.
The arrival of these catkins signals the end of winter’s reign and the return of longer, warmer days. This is a critical time for the many creatures that call these habitats home in Fairbanks’ boreal forest and taiga ecosystems. And as we’ll see, the humble willow catkin plays a surprisingly significant role in these dynamic, interconnected systems.
The Photo Session
For those uninitiated in the art and science of macro photography, embarking on this form of exploration is akin to opening a door into a whole new world, revealing the hidden details and complexities that lie just beneath the surface of everyday objects. It takes the minute, the overlooked, and brings it into startling focus. And when your subjects are as fleeting and delicate as willow catkins, the results can be truly breathtaking.
My journey into capturing these spring messengers began with a 50 mm lens and a 36 mm extension tube on my trusty Nikon D850. While this combination allowed me to take some nice shots, I yearned to get even closer and delve deeper into the minute world of these catkins.
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I brought a few clippings of branches with catkins home to satisfy my curiosity and set up an impromptu studio. Using a step ladder to secure the branches and a tripod with a macro-focusing rail, I embarked on a challenging and sometimes frustrating photography session with my Laowa 25 mm Ultra Macro lens.
The Laowa 25 mm is not your typical macro lens – it’s essentially a microscope for your camera. It offers incredible magnification but has a razor-thin focal plane, making capturing a three-dimensional subject like a catkin challenging. The slightest bit of motion can throw your subject out of focus. On a windy day, even the subtle sway of a catkin indoors can feel like a storm at this scale.
And yet, amidst the frustrations and discarded shots, I captured one or two images that made the struggle worth it. I had caught the unique details of female catkins’ green and yellow, fleshy stigmas with white woolly filaments. There’s a certain satisfaction in documenting the intricate textures and structures of these lesser-seen components, elements that are often missed by the naked eye.
After a couple of hours, I returned to my 50 mm lens, this time with an additional extension tube. Shooting at a medium aperture of f/8, I found the sweet spot for capturing the willow catkins. The resulting photos showcased the white filaments and the yellow, pollen-covered anthers in all their glory. Some even highlighted the immature, more prominent red anthers, yet to be opened, revealing their pollen.
The journey was not without its challenges, but every successful photograph was a reward in itself. Macro photography is about patience, precision, and the joy of revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
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50 mm f/1.8 Nikon Lens
Kenko extension tubes (available for multiple camera systems)
Laowa 25 mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro (available for multiple camera systems)
The Male Willow Catkins – A Closer Look
As spring stirs the Alaskan landscape from its winter slumber, one of the earliest signs of the awakening season is the appearance of the male willow catkins. These fascinating structures, which emerge like tiny torches from the willow branches, are an integral part of the reproductive cycle of the willow tree.
Male willow catkins, or ‘aments,’ are elongated clusters of flowers without petals. As they mature, they transform from inconspicuous buds into a spectacle of color and texture. The catkins are densely covered with numerous tiny flowers, each composed of a pair of bracts and a single stamen. The stamen, in turn, consists of a slender white filament topped with a pollen-producing anther.
In full bloom, the anthers unfurl to reveal their cargo of yellow pollen grains. Depending on the species of willow, the anthers can vary in color from bright yellow to deep red. Some of the most striking photos I captured show these vibrant anthers, dusted with a fine layer of pollen, ready to be carried off by the wind or an opportunistic insect.
The male willow catkins play a vital role in the life of the willow tree. They are the tree’s primary means of dispersing pollen and achieving fertilization. It’s an elaborate, carefully timed dance between the willow and the forces of nature. The tree’s survival, and the continuation of the species, hinges on these humble clusters of yellow and red.
And yet, for all their importance, these natural marvels are easily overlooked. Only when we take the time to look closely, do their beauty and significance become apparent. Whether it’s the intricate structure of a single anther or the way the catkins light up in the morning sun, each image tells a story of a world in miniature, hidden in plain sight.
The Elusive Females
While the vibrant male willow catkins often steal the show, their female counterparts play an equally important role in the lifecycle of the willow tree. Though they may not be as immediately striking, female catkins have a subtle beauty that reveals itself under close examination.
Through my camera lens, I captured the minute details of these female powerhouses of reproduction. The catkins I photographed, mostly from Salix alaxensis, though potentially some from Salix arbusculoides, presented themselves in varying stages of maturity and coloration.
The female catkins consist of tiny flowers, each with a pistil composed of an ovary, a style, and a stigma. The stigma is the receptive tip of the pistil where pollen germination occurs. In my photos, the stigmas appear deep red or light yellow, split into two parts, a common trait among willow species. These bifurcated stigmas are blanketed with white hairs, likely designed to trap pollen effectively.
One intriguing observation from my photo sessions was the correlation between the stigmas and the stem’s color. Catkins with yellow-tipped stigmas were attached to a more reddish stem, whereas the ones with red-tipped stigmas were found on a whitish stem.
However, these observations alone did not conclusively identify the species. After an extensive search across numerous databases and photo references, I gathered evidence suggesting the catkins could belong to either Salix alaxensis or Salix arbusculoides. The reddish stems could indicate Salix arbusculoides, but this isn’t a definitive characteristic. The most distinguishable difference between the two species would be the shape of their leaves, but we’ll need to wait a few more days before they fully unfurl. It’s also important to consider that they could belong entirely to a different Salix species, one that hadn’t initially crossed my mind.
The color variation could indicate different maturity levels, with the deep red potentially indicating a more mature stage. However, it’s also possible that these are species-specific characteristics or even variations within a single species due to environmental or genetic factors.
The beauty of nature often lies in its complexity and diversity. Though it may initially seem that the male catkins are the stars of the show, the more subtly adorned female catkins complete the picture, each playing their part in the survival and continuation of these hardy northern species.
Willow Catkins – More than Meets the Eye
Beyond their aesthetic appeal, willow catkins are invaluable to the Alaskan ecosystem. These unassuming structures are one of the first pollen sources for awakening insects. The bees that survive overwinter rely heavily on this early food source after their long winter rest. Additionally, willow catkins are a crucial food resource for various birds and mammals, contributing to the biodiversity of Alaskan fauna.
This integral connection between willow catkins and the surrounding wildlife is just one of the many fascinating aspects I’m documenting as part of my ongoing work on my Alaska Wildflower Guide. Once I have successfully identified these species, I’ll be adding them to the guide. I’ll also be attempting to explore further into the macro photography world with other wildflowers.
I’ve been recently expanding my macro photography work into wildflowers, drawn by their artistic appeal and scientific interest. This is a natural progression from my Water and Ice project, where I’ve focused on capturing the stunning natural artwork of snowflakes, frost, and all things H2O.
The Wonders of Spring
The arrival of springtime in the Alaska Interior is a short period of subtle yet profound transformation. From the emergence of willow catkins to the gradual awakening of insects and other animals, it’s a time full of wonders if you know where to look. As a photographer and a nature enthusiast, it’s my delight to share these changes with you.
I encourage you to share your own experiences with springtime changes in nature. The subtle transformations around us can often go unnoticed unless we take the time to observe. So why not step outside and explore these changes for yourself? I’d love to hear your stories and see your photos. Let’s celebrate the wonders of springtime together!
If you’re intrigued by these images and wish to examine them in greater detail, I’ve arranged a special gallery where you can view these pictures in stunning 4K resolution. This allows you to zoom in closely, exploring each intricate aspect of the photos. You can visit the gallery here: https://photos.lwpetersen.com/Date/2023/May/2023.
Moreover, if these images resonate with you, consider bringing a piece of the Alaskan wilderness into your own home or office. Prints and wall art, available in various sizes and formats, can be purchased directly from the gallery. Your support not only helps me continue to capture and share the beauty of Alaska’s flora and fauna but also allows you to own a unique piece of this fascinating ecosystem. Your purchase truly makes a significant impact, enabling me to dig deeper into this work and share more of these incredible images with you.