Pussy Willow

(This column was first published in the April 6, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    April is a month of waiting.

    Waiting for May leaves to appear on deciduous trees. Waiting for the flood of May warblers. Waiting for that last late frost to pass so we can plant gardens. Waiting for May's burst of color.

    Indeed April showers do bring May flowers.

    But April also has its own attractions. The ephemerals, those more delicate early spring wildflowers, enjoy their brief ascendancy on the forest floor. This is the time to look for flowers with strange names like skunk cabbage, liverwort, jack-in-the-pulpit, blood root and adder's tongue. They must bloom quickly to attract insects for pollination before the sunbeams they require are closed off by the leaf canopy due in May.

    Meanwhile forest and marsh pools resound with a symphony of anurans, the piccolo notes of spring peepers and American toads sounding above the tambourine jangle of chorus frogs, the percussive quacking of wood frogs, the tympanic gunks of green frogs and the bass viol rums of bullfrogs. Not at all entertained, nearby leopard and pickerel frogs snore impolitely.

    But one of the best features of April is that favorite of children -- and me as well -- the pussy willow, a common shrub of low wet areas that is often "civilized" to form a garden hedge. Now their soft furry catkins have burst from under the varnished brown, tentlike bracts that protected them through the winter. Those gray pussyfeet invite stroking and they strongly reward a finger's touch.

    Once you locate a pussy willow, you would do well to follow its development. By early May its alternate elliptical leaves will have appeared. Their rounder shape together with their serrated edges that smooth near the leaf base separate this willow species from dozens of others. The weeping willow, for example, has a long narrow leaf, entirely toothed. The pussy willow leaves' dark green upper faces and silvery undersides adorn them through the summer until they turn butter yellow in fall.

    In late April those catkins will develop the blossoms that identify each (dioecious) shrub as male or female. Examined closely then, male pussyfeet will be covered with pollen and their divided stamens will extend out beyond the fur. The far less common and less attractive catkins of the female shrubs will be covered by undivided thick pistils. Wind then shares responsibility with bees and other insects for carrying pollen from stamens to pistils. Finally, in June the pistil pods ripen and, like milkweed, send their feathery seeds sailing. At that time willows are said to "shed cotton."

    But that is not the only way that pussy willows reproduce. Willow thickets are mostly clones. Twigs break off and fall to the ground where they root to form exact genetic copies of their single parent.

    My family knows about this process. During the Depression we moved from central Rochester to a suburb where my father took up gardening. One of his early ventures was planting tea roses along one side of our yard and he set my brother and me to cutting willow twigs to support the thorny bushes. To avoid the willows' rooting, my dad gave us strict instructions, "Be sure to stick the twigs in the ground upside down." We did as we were told, but when I left home for the Navy a dozen years later, a line of willow trees stood where the roses had been immediately displaced.

    Those strong, fast growing, fibrous roots provide excellent soil erosion control and pussy willows serve us well where they are commonly found along streams. The streams return the favor by providing the open sunlight the willows so much enjoy.