The Catkins Are Getting Ready to Attack
Yesterday morning I woke up and my eyes were a bit itchy. Not thinking too much of it, I went to work as usual. Then as the day went on, I started to notice those pesky little white balls of fluff floating around outside my office window.
Dang it. It's already that time. Beijing is about to come under attack by the catkins once again.
If you’re a newbie to Beijing in the spring then you might be mistaken for thinking that the oft-muttered ‘airpocalypse’ has stepped it up a notch, starting to rain down unruly insta-cancer clumps of PM2.5. But no, this is a completely natural phenomenon. So let's have a bit of a biology brush-up – it’s time to learn about the cottonwood poplar tree, birther of all that white stuff you’ve seen floating around.
It all began in the 1960s when the government felt the need to give Beijing a fresh, verdant makeover and decided to plant around 120 million poplar and willow trees over the ensuing years. These trees were chosen for their ability to thrive despite cold weather, droughts, flooding, poor soil conditions, and pests and insects, i.e. perfect for Beijing. They had been used across China in the past for a number of purposes, including timber production, agroforestry and for the protection of ecological development. Since then, millions more have been planted.
Catkins: The stuff of nightmares
The cotton-like material is actually a mass of airborne seeds produced by catkins, or aments, prior to the cottonwoods’ bloom in spring, a trait that both the male and female poplar trees exhibit.
The next time you find yourself middle-finger akimbo to the sky, cursing the fluffy destroyer of your fate, calm yourself with the knowledge that the word ‘catkin’ comes from the old Dutch word katteken, meaning ‘kitten’, due to its resemblance to a kitten’s tail. Well, ain’t that cute … Damn you, cursed kitten tails, assassins of sight!
Alternatively, those with a dirty mind may find comfort in the fact that the word 'ament' is taken from the Latin amentum, meaning ‘thong.’
Times are hard for poplar trees
It is also poplars that line the Gobi Desert as a means of blocking sandstorms and reducing the gradual encroachment of the desert on Beijing. I’ll take kitten tails over minute shards of glass to the retina any day.
But why choose to plant a tree that craps everywhere?
Fluff to fire in zero seconds
Well, apart from the aforementioned reasons of hardiness, there doesn’t appear to be any real answer. Maybe it was for the cottonwood’s ability to inadvertently set fire to itself/buses/houses/universities. Fluff keeps people on their toes.
Oh god, it’s everywhere! As well as lodging in the eyes, nose, mouth and throat, the fluff can also aggravate allergies
It may also be that city planners just didn’t bank on there being so much of the darned stuff. There is thought to be a seven-to-three ratio of female to male trees, creating an abundance of ornery orbs and leading the government to try and correct the gender imbalance by uprooting female trees and replacing them with males. Some trees are even given ‘sex reassignment surgery.’ Umm, what? In the simplest scientific terms, research tells me that by cutting off the female tree’s branches, male ones can then be stuck on. Makes sense.
Aww, kitty tails!
So, other than giving the city an otherworldly vibe akin to something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film, plus multiplying the chances of death by bus a thousandfold while riding down Jiaodaokou Lu, there don’t appear to be any positives to having these trees around. But we better get used to them – a poplar can live for up to 100 years.
Since 2017, Beijing has launched a campaign to fight the catkins. 300,000 female willow and poplar trees have been injected with chemical inhibitors to prevent them from forming flower buds and their tree crowns have been pruned, said the municipal park and foresty greenification department. The initial campaign aimed to eradicate the over-proliferation of flying catkins by 2020.
While it hasn't completely eradicated catkins, the amount of "summer snow" in Beijing has drastically decreased. But for those with seasonal allergies, it's about time to visit your doctor and get a refill on your medication because the attack of the catkins is coming whether you're ready for it or not!
Part of this article originally appeared on the Beijinger in April 2014.
Images: ecns, Wikipedia, AT0086, Beijing News, Mike Wester