Spring has come – more or less – and since it’s a great opportunity for a quick botanics lesson, you’re going to get one, whether you like it or not. The plants have awoken and any day now they will be sprouting, blossoming and doing all the things that plants do, and to which most people don’t really pay attention anymore.
And yet practically every country has a distinctive flora, with some plants serving as a symbol for the entire country (Canadian maple leaves, anyone?) or at least a certain visual shorthand for the landscape. In the case of Poland, there is a distinct (if a bit archaic) vision of the Polish countryside as a large, open field, with a row of knotted willows in the distance. And the willow sprouts will usually have catkins.
Willow catkins are something of a folk-cultural icon in Poland. What they actually are is a type of flower, or flower cluster, where many tiny flowers with vestigial petals are arranged on a central stem, giving it a characteristic “fluffy” look. Since the willows sprout them quite early, they have become something of a symbol of spring (together with swallows), and more specifically Polish spring. They are an important part of Easter decorations, and one of the symbols of Easter, but they were also supposed to have magical properties – some interesting and not very Christian superstitions are connected with willow catkins, such as hitting each other with young, blossoming twigs for luck and attraction of the opposite sex. In northern parts of Poland, swallowing a single catkin was believed to give the ability to spot a witch or a demon or other dangerous, supernatural being.
You will learn more about catkin superstitions around Easter time, and for now, go and take a walk in the park, and watch the plants wake up and stretch!