Spring has sprung! (It’s just currently buried under twenty centimeters of snow, along with my burgeoning crocuses, hyacinths, and glories). But I saw the signs at the 2011 Calgary Horticultural Society Garden Show, held this past weekend at Spruce Meadows: one of the booths was selling huge bunches of pussy willow branches, and people were shelling out for them left, right and center. To me, delicate blooming crocuses and the emergence of the catkins on pussy willow trees are certain indicators that spring has arrived, even if the weather says otherwise.
What we call “pussy willows” – Salix discolor (aka Salix laurentiana, Salix prinoides) – are native to Canada and parts of the United States, and like most willows, love boggy wetlands and damp wooded areas. In Europe, the closest relatives are Salix caprea, which go by the common moniker of “goat willow,” presumably because shrubs were given over to goat forage in years gone by. Animals LOVE willows: Salix is a staple in the diets of beavers, muskrats, red squirrels, deer and hares, and they are important nesting sites and flythroughs for many species of birds. European goat willows tend to have larger catkins than their North American cousins, and there are even a few types (Salix caprea ‘Select’ or great sallow) that don’t care to get their feet wet, and are actually strangely (for willows) drought-tolerant.
But it’s the catkins that we all love so much – we cut or force branches to use in seasonal flower arrangements, and they’re even used in Chinese New Year celebrations and as palm leaf substitutes (or additionally) in Palm Sunday ceremonies in Europe and Asia. There’s just something so beautiful and whimsical about those fuzzy little flowers! Willows are dioecious, which means there are separate male and female plants, with the males bearing staminate flowers and the females bearing pistillate flowers. The male flowers just happen to be a bit larger and more showy – and before full emergence, they are covered in a soft grey “fur” that sort of resembles a cat’s coat to touch. Regular, judicious pruning will ensure the growth of new, longer branches, and encourage bigger and more abundant catkin growth from year to year; just be sure to prune immediately after flowering. (It’s actually a good idea to follow a pruning schedule with willows, as they are much tidier if kept up, and can be maintained at a much more accessible height. They can reach over six metres tall if unshorn, and that’s a little too large if you want to clip branches for bouquets every spring). Goat willows also have fuzzy catkins, and particularly striking are those of Salix melanostachys, which are pitch black with red or orange anthers. They must look incredible in an early spring landscape, especially against a backdrop of snow.
Yeah, snow…all that snow….
Vincent A. Simeone’s book Wonders of the Winter Landscape (2005 Illinois Ball Publishing) is worth a gander, with gorgeous photos.