Pussy Willow

Pussy Willow

Pussy Willow

On Tuesday I found the first pussy willows (Salix sp.) of the season at Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA).  Of course I had to pick a few branches to take home.

Most everyone has admired the whitish grey, felt-like pussy willows, which are the first harbingers of spring. Most species of willows (there are over 300 worldwide) have furry flower buds. A Northeastern species (Salix discolor) is commonly considered “the” pussy willow, however, most of us do not distinguish between the different flowering willows when we see them early in the spring. All the willows with fuzzy catkins are “pussy willows”. Only later in the season do we worry about the proper identification.

The furry whiteish catkins are actually tightly bunched arrangements of stamens (male) or carpels (female). The stamens and carpels have attached silvery hairs. Catkins are either male or female. Willows are dioecious, meaning that the male and female catkins are on different plants. Most of the pussy willows that we see in early spring are male. The female catkins open later and often look slightly different.

The willow bud is covered by a single caplike scale. The silvery hairs are the first part of the bud to develop. By trapping the sun’s heat, the insulating hairs help keep the reproductive portions of the bud warm while they develop. Mature male catkins produce pollen on the anthers and the female catkins develop ovules in the carpels.

Willows rely on insects, particularly bees, for pollination. The catkins produce nectar very early in the spring and are important food sources for bees.

Pussy willows are used in Chinese (Lunar) New Year’s celebrations as symbols of prosperity. Eastern European Orthodox and some Catholics in both Europe and North America use pussy willows as an alternative to palm branches on Palm Sunday, since palms do not grow in more northern climates.

I am always excited to see the first pussy willows each year. Can spring be far behind?

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