At this time of the year last year, temperatures had already hit the 70s and it felt like spring had sprung.
This year is quite different. We celebrated the first day of spring with a fresh blanket of snow. But sooner or later spring will arrive, and one of her most delightful harbingers will be the pussy willow.
Pussy willows are members of Salix genus, which contains a staggering 90 species that can be found throughout North America. Willows are to trees as the goldenrods and asters are to flowers; they are numerous and quite a challenge to identify. Even Thoreau once lamented, “The more I study willows, the more I am confused.”
The word “salix” is of Celtic origin, which is unusual for scientific names. The Celtic word “sallis” means “near water,” which is where to look for willows. Only the black willow (Salix nigra) is considered to be of commercial value by the U.S. Forest Service. The rest offer little in the way of timber. In fact, some 30 species are little more than shrubs. But what they lack in commercial value they make up for in medicinal value, wildlife habitat and aesthetics.
The pussy willow (Salix discolor) is one of the shrub species. The species name “discolor” is a reference to the contrasting coloration of the leaves — shiny green above and whitish beneath, but the plant is only familiar to us because of its flowers (also known as catkins). As soon as the catkins fade, the pussy willow joins the rest of the genus, living an anonymous life. The flowers of pussy willows are more than just interesting to look at, however.
Male and female
Pussy willows are known as dioecious (die-EE-shus) plants, which means that individual shrubs are either male or female. There may be some pollination by the wind, but for the most part pussy willows depend on insects to carry their pollen from male bushes to females. The seeds from these flowers, small and equipped with small downy strands that catch the wind, are widely scattered across the landscape by both wind and water currents.
I have no way of telling whether the catkins featured in the photos this week are male or female, but for some reason I find myself leaning toward male. As time passes, the secret will be revealed by the bushes themselves, for the males will show yellow, pollen-coated stamens emerging from their catkins, while the females will produce greenish-white pistils. This is very easy to observe, but you have to remember to go back and visit the same bush regularly. Most people (including myself) simply forget to do this.
Another interesting thing to note about pussy willow flowers is the fact that they are protected by a single bud scale. Many flowers that we are more familiar with are encased in an array of protective scales (or sepals), but the catkins of pussy willows are covered by only one. The shape of this scale reminds me of a slipper shell, and the color is that of a coffee bean.
Look for pussy willows in open, damp areas. They are quite intolerant of shade and, as my mother says, they “like to have their feet wet.” It is not uncommon to find these bushes growing in low-lying areas where you are also likely to find species like alders, red-osier dogwood and silky dogwood. At this time of year, it is generally easiest to scan the roadsides for low shrubs with the telltale catkins as you drive through the countryside.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.