Posted by: Small House Under a Big Sky Homestead | April 9, 2013

Pussy Willows = Spring!

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A sure sign of spring: a long hike in the forest and a bunch of pussy willows for home.

It is truly one of our most enduring spring rites, performed before spring even arrives. Snow still covers the earth, but warmer weather brings you out of winter captivity on a February day for a walk in the woods. You round a bend in a swampy area and, lo and behold! pussy willows greet your spring-starved eyes. You prune off a few branches studded with the furry catkins, to be brought home and honored as spring’s earliest harbinger.

One of our most time-honored spring rites it is, and free to boot. But if you find pussy willow trees as delightful as I do, you may wish to make one alteration in this rite of spring: namely, plant them in your landscape, rather than trudging through the snow somewhere to find them. Not only will they be that much closer to you for harvesting, but you’ll also be more likely to prune them properly. And proper pruning allows you to show off these plants with maximum impact on your landscape.

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What Exactly Are “Pussy Willows”?

Pussy willow trees are native to wetlands of Canada and the eastern U.S. As a willow, the trees are part of the genus, Salix. The terminology “pussy willows” is used loosely to refer both to the trees themselves and to the furry buds on their branches (also known as “catkins”). However, to make a distinction, I refer to the former as “pussy willow trees” and to the latter as “pussy willows.”

The Latin name for these trees in North America is Salix discolor, while its rough equivalent in Europe, the “goat willow,” goes by the scientific moniker, Salix caprea. Technically, Salix discolor is a deciduous shrub that can reach a height of twenty feet, if not pruned properly. Indeed, as will be revealed on Page 2, pruning back Salix discolor to a typical “shrub” size is central to its maintenance as a landscape plant.

But for an exact identification, we must narrow it down even further. Pussy willows are dioecious. There are male pussy willow trees and female pussy willow trees. The buds, or “catkins,” on the male pussy willow trees usually appear earlier than do those on the females. Consequently, chances are that if you encounter a stand of pussy willows in the winter, it’s the male catkins that you are seeing.

This is the scientific date on pussy willows…..I just know I love them because to me they mean SPRING!

Small House / Big Sky Donna

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