It’s Snowing! Nope… Beijing’s Pesky Catkin Season is Upon Us

By That's Beijing, April 14, 2020

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It feels like we just moved on from winter, and suddenly we’re in the throes of Beijing’s annual catkin phenomenon. For those of you who are new to the city you might be wondering why Beijing is all the sudden covered in fluffy white balls.

Well, in the 1960s and 70s the local government had the well-meaning idea to make the city prettier and greener. As part of this beautification project, they planted millions of trees, including an abundance of poplars and willows. Sounds good, right?

One thing the officials didn’t consider was that they planted a massive amount of female poplar and willow trees. These types of trees have far more females than males – roughly a 7-to-3 ratio. 


Image via Weibo

It is estimated that of the 120 million trees the government planted so many decades ago, 70% were female. And the result is Beijing’s annual “spring snow.” 

Every spring when the temperature reaches about 15 degrees, these female trees release their seeds – which look like white balls of fluff. For a three-week period, this spring snow floats through the air, gathers in massive piles and lodges itself in our orifices. 

While catkins might look kind of cool – we mean, Beijing does look like a winter wonderland – they can actually be quite a nuisance. From our personal experience, these cotton-like balls get can get lodged in your ears, eyes and throat all too frequently, making it pretty necessary to carry a mask during catkin season. These seemingly harmless balls of fluff also cause moderate-to-serious allergies among many Beijingers.

Image via Weibo

The spring catkins have even been linked to an increase in fires in the city. It turns out catkins are really, really flammable. In 2013, one woman had the brilliant idea of lighting a bunch of catkins on fire and accidentally burned down a bus and two cars. Guys, don’t light the catkins on fire! 

For those of us who have endured the brief but annoying catkin season of previous years, take some solace in the fact that Beijing officials have made attempts to deal with the issue. In 1994, Beijing launched its “Millions of Male Poplars in Beijing” initiative. Some trees were also injected with hormones in some sort of attempt at "sex reassignment," but that method proved time consuming and expensive. Starting in 2001 only male poplars and willow trees have been allowed to be planted in Beijing. 

READ MORE: Beijing Toughens Up in Battle Against Catkins

The idea was to rid the capital of all those pesky catkins by 2005. But just look outside... clearly things didn’t exactly go as planned. 

And so the yearly battle continues...

At one point there was a plan to eliminate them completely by 2020, as announced by city authorities in 2017. And in 2018, 300,000 trees were sterilized with a chemical that prevents bud development. 

Well, there’s not much we can do about it now. So cheers to yet another catkin season, and here’s to hoping that maybe someday Beijing will be catkin-free.

GIF via via @赵鑫不喜欢巧克力/Weibo

READ MORE: Beijing Plans to Eliminate Pesky Catkin Problem by 2020

This article was originally published on April 8, 2017. It has been updated and republished on April 14, 2020.

[Cover image via Pixabay]

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