In the very early spring, one of my favourite plants to look for starting to wake up is the Pussy Willow. In my childhood I have fond memory of a large one that grew beside the second pond, in the horse’s field. I’m not sure why, because it wasn’t a tree I ever actually did anything with, not like the tree one has their childhood treehouse built in, or a favourite swing, or that one liked to climb, etc. It was just always there, and every spring it would be one of the first trees to waken from dormancy, putting out new soft buds. There were probably others in the area as well, but this was The pussy willow.
Back in mid-February, I actually found this one struggling to bud along one of the trails on the Rouge, the day Blackburnian and I went hiking there. Mid-February seems a bit early, and it may have been woken during one of the mild spells we had. Generally I think of them starting to come out mid-March, with the catkins reaching their peak in April.
Along with the dominant cottonwoods and birch, willow is one of the prominent tree species at TTPBRS. Most are the non-fuzzy kind, but there are a few Pussy Willow here and there as well. By the start of the spring season, they were well in “bloom”.
There’re three species of willow that have been given the common name of Pussy Willow, but the one that occurs in North America is Salix discolor. It’s only found in northern North America, through Canada and the northern States. Like most willows, it’s found primarily in wet habitats such as river and pond edges, swamps and bogs.
Like the sumac, all willows, including the Pussy Willow, are dioecious, meaning a plant is either male or female, but never sports both sexes of flower. The male flowers produce long pollen-producing anthers, which give them a fuzzy yellow appearance once they’re blooming. The female flowers develop stigmas, long thin tubes that lead down to the flower’s ovary, which are greenish-yellow and lack the fuzziness of the male flowers.
Willow bark contains the compound salicin, which is closely related to aspirin. Native Americans used to harvest the willows and extract the compound from the bark for use as a painkiller and fever reducer. Branches with the fuzzy white catkins are often used in flower arrangements in the spring, and harvested stems can be forced to flower in the greenhouse by manipulating light periods.
The Pussy Willow, like all willows, is a prolific grower and will grow a new tree from a severed branch if provided water. Although not a Pussy Willow, I recall as a child the willow trees along the road being trimmed around the power lines, and we ended up with a log with a small branch, probably no more than an inch in diameter, growing out of it. The log sat for a while on the lawn, and the branch flourished. Eventually my parents buried it beside one of the little ponds. This was perhaps 20 years ago or so; the tree is now easily over 20m (60 ft) tall and measures a foot and a half in diameter at chest height.
The name Pussy Willow, of course, comes from the soft buds that sort of resemble cats’ paws, in a very abstract way… they’re both soft and fuzzy. The pointedness of them makes me think more rabbit paws, actually, but I suppose Bunny Willow didn’t roll off the tongue as nicely? These would make nicer keychains, though.
The buds are eaten by birds, including finches and grouse, in the spring. Their dense branches make great shelter and nest sites as well. The leaves are a food source for caterpillars of a number of butterflies, and the male flowers are visited by pollinators such as bumblebees.
Personally, I like to gently stroke the deliciously soft catkins against my cheek. I’m not one for fur, but I’d love to have a muff made out of these – with the fur on the inside, of course!