Pussy Willow's Time to Shine
Last fall, I went to a nearby wetland with a pair of clippers and
cut twigs from one willow shrub after another. It wasn't hard to
tell the willows from the non-willows because willows are the only
woody plants in this area whose buds are covered by a single bud
scale. These cute, pointy caps are very different from the
overlapping scales that protect most buds through the winter. And
the few woody plants with no protective scales are easily
recognizable: their naked, embryonic leaves rely on a coating of
woolliness to keep them from desiccating or freezing.
But telling one willow from another is quite a different matter.
In my small collection I had yellow buds, both small and large, as
well as brownish and reddish buds that were small, medium, and
large. A single specimen that I knew from past experience to be a
pussy willow had some buds as small as the smallest and others more
than twice as large. Some willows still had leaves last November,
and some of those leaves had stipules (little doodads at the base
of the leaf stalk), while some didn't; some were wavy-margined, and
the edges of others had teeth.
I have been told that telling one willow from another is not as
hopeless as I think it is, but because so many species - especially
pussy willow - are variable in appearance and, in addition, because
many of the willows hybridize, I am content to let most of them
proliferate and diversify without my oversight. Even Thoreau was
stopped by the willows, saying, "The more I study willows, the more
I am confused."
For a few weeks in early spring, pussy willows, however, are
unmistakable, and though the name may seem fanciful, it is right on
the mark: after the bud scales have split open, and before the
leaves emerge, the catkins of the male flowers really do look like
little blobs of glistening, gray kitten fur. Often there is still
snow on the ground when pussy willow catkins begin to enlarge, and
they shine like silver against a white background. Other willows
have furry catkins, too, but unlike pussy willows, they will be
disappointing if you bring them in the house in February and put
them in water.
The opening buds of female pussy willows are not nearly as furry
as those on male plants, and male and female willow flowers are
always borne on separate plants. Those who like to bring twigs
indoors in mid-winter to force flowers and leaves from their buds
and get a jump on spring will do well to search out a big, male
pussy willow in April and keep it in mind for the following
"Big" is a relative term, as pussy willows usually grow only to
about 20 feet. In true shrub fashion, they have many clustered
stems. New plants can arise from seeds, roots, or from branch
fragments that break off. Cuttings grow roots very easily, and
"willow water" - water in which willow stems have rooted - was used
to induce rooting of twigs of other species before rooting hormones
became available commercially.
After the kitten-fur phase, the minute flowers of pussy willow
bloom and produce abundant pollen and nectar very early in the
spring, when other plants have nothing at all to offer. A warm day
will bring bees of all sizes and types and dozens of other insects
to this first banquet. The catkins seem alive as they are jiggled
by eager foragers.
The tiny seeds ripen early, too, and each has silky fluff
allowing it to be wafted quite a distance by the wind. The seeds
are not long-lived, and they can germinate within a day. Seeds
lucky enough to land on moist soil in good sunlight can grow to
several feet in height in their first year. Pussy willow's
tolerance of wetness and its vigorous growth make this species very
useful in controlling erosion; plus, cut twigs root quickly and
require no special care.
Pussy willow thickets are popular with many bird species. Alder
and willow flycatchers, gray catbirds, yellow warblers, and
goldfinches commonly nest there, and many waterfowl and marsh birds
also use willow for cover. Both deer and moose find the twigs
palatable, and hare and porcupines eat both bark and buds. Grouse
and squirrels eat just the buds.
Although pussy willows naturally germinate in wetlands, they
will thrive if transplanted to drier soils. If some of their
wildlife companions followed them into the backyard, they might be
worth keeping an eye on at all times of the year, not just for the
couple of weeks in spring when they are earning their name.
Virginia Barlow is a founding editor of
Northern Woodlands. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by
Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology
Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.