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Pussy willows burst forth in February, March

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Pussy Willows bring a gentle touch to early spring. (Contributed photo).

by FRANCES LAMBERTS

Its tight, reddish-brown winter buds had been swelling and a few catkins were showing faint, silvery gray points at the top even in late January. In sun-exposed parts of the Highway 81 bank, the Ardinna Woods Arboretum’s Pussy Willow trees were readying themselves for spring.

Through late February and March, the catkins of the male trees of this species are bursting the bud scales that confined and kept them warm during the winter. As they grow, some look hooded when a scale clings to the top before being shed, as the fuzzy, silky soft bloom expands.

Donald C. Peattie, author of “A natural history of trees,” holds Pussy Willow to be the favorite of all native willows of the eastern United States. Beginning its blooming period in earliest spring, he says, or even in the last weeks of winter, “the ‘pussy fur’ is known to everyone from childhood on.”

The catkin flowers remain upright along the branches. As they mature, they produce prodigious amounts of yellow pollen, making the tree one of the earliest, if unintended food sources for bees.

It is wind pollinated, and, the female flowers being on different trees, the catkins grow “unthinkable quantities” of the “golden dust” pollen, as Peattie describes the process, to ensure that some male sperm cells will alight on receptive female flowers and fertilize these for reproduction and survival of the species.

Pussy Willow, with scientific name of Salix discolor, can be grown as a large shrub, or as a small tree reaching about 20 foot in height when mature. Its leaves, with toothed margins, appear after the catkins bloom.

The leaves’ dark green upper-surface color contrasts with a lighter, bluish-silvery tint below, during the summer, turning yellow before dropping in the fall.

The contrasting surface colors are referenced in the “discolor” species Latin name and can aid in recognition of the tree.

No longer is Pussy Willow seen so commonly in the landscape as to make this tree “known to everyone from childhood on.” The male tree of this species, with identification number 70, can be seen flowering now in the Ardinna Woods Arboretum.