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I know what a pussy willow is, but what is it?

With spring finally finding us on top of Hogback Mountain, we are seeing a rush of spring time hallmarks that the lower elevations have been enjoying for weeks. Birdsong, green shoots and pussy willows to name a few. But wait, what IS a pussy willow? Are they buds? fruit? Some sort of tiny feline parasite?


pussy willows on Hogback Mountain April 2023

I am referring to the fuzzy little ovals that decorate the twigs of several smaller species of willow (Salix) in our region and around the world. The soft grey "fur" that covers them are where these structures and at least one species of willow get the cat-influenced name. Appearing in the chilly days of late winter or early spring, the fur serves the same purpose as the fur on any cat- protection from the cold. The pussy willow itself is the willow's catkin, or flower cluster. It is a flower we can easily miss, it will have no colorful petals, it does not advertise it's presence with a showy aroma. The willow flower doesn't need these things. Like a birch or beech tree the willow is wind pollinated and does not need to attract animals to aid in pollination. It's male flowers will push a multitude of stamens through the fuzz and spread pollen to the wind, hoping that the cloud will find a receptive female flower.


willow flower in flower- from www.thespruce.com

Willow trees are a fairly common tree of wet areas and is considered a valuable plant for erosion control and water purification. Culturally, the plant has been important to humans for centuries as a wide-spread symbol of fertility and rebirth as well as a source of material goods (baskets, arrow shafts). Willow bark was also used medicinally around the world from ancient China to Greece to North America. It's pain-relieving Salicylic acid has been shown to be an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever and is the basis for aspirin's active ingredient.

And at least here on our wind-swept mountain, it brings relief from the winter blues with a soft, fuzzy beauty that promises the warm, green days to come.

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