One of the greatest things about calling a place “home” throughout your life, especially in an area like the Eastern UP, is the way it changes, yet always stays the same. The landscape fades and blooms with each season. But it remains recognizable, like an old friend. One good thing about aging is watching this evolving kaleidoscope of change, as the shifts of climate and conditions offer prime opportunity for various species to flourish.
The beach is likely soon to be rife with pussy willows, a native American stick plant whose real name is Salix discolor. There’s a Native American story about a rabbit that leaped up into a patch of willows from the surface of the winter’s deepest snows. The cold and wind had exhausted him, so he snuggled into a bed of willows and fell into a deep sleep. He slept right into spring, and when he woke up, the snow had melted leaving him high above the earth. He jumped and tumbled down through the willows, leaving bits of his fur torn away in the jagged branches. Since that day, pussy willows bear spring coats of soft fur.
When we were kids, we used to pick the small furry bits, called catkins, off and glue them to construction paper in the shape of animals. Okay, they were always cats. We couldn’t get past the name. We didn’t know the rabbit story. Our paper would sag and buckle under the weight of the grey velvet bumps. As an art medium, pussy willows aren’t all that great.
For landscaping and flower arrangements, though, they are fabulous. As a cut flower, they will last for years as long as they stay dry. They are outstanding in arrangements as an accent plant.
Gardeners love the “Tree of Enchantment”, the Weeping Pussy Willow. The tree grows six or eight feet high. It has been grafted and the branches bend down, adorned in early spring with their bright, mustard-colored puffs of pollen.
But the wild ones are easy to grow in pots or in the ground, with sufficient water. Take a cut stem, stick it into moist soil, proceed to keep it watered, and presto. You can encourage them to spread by making sure you have both genders. Pussy willows are Dioecious (die A shus), meaning that male and female parts are found on different plants. An astute observer can even tell them apart. The males have the larger, showier catkins, while the females tend to be smaller and green colored.
It’s hard to think of such a sparse-looking, stemmy plant as being a robust pollen source. But when the bees emerge after a long winter of shivering in the hive, the pussy willow is one of their first targets. The plant needs bees and butterflies to thrive, because it holds tight to its pollen, which doesn’t get blown around by the wind. Since the early bloom attracts insects, birds like chickadees will frequent a batch of pussy willows looking for an easy meal. A spring bog adorned with pussy willows will be hopping with activity.
One of the nicest things about the pussy willow is its place in legend. It is considered sacred due to its flexible twigs. It is connected to healing and revitalization. It is the symbol of resilience and inspires us to “bend” with change and move forward in life. It has magical powers and has the ability to grant wishes. To make a wish, tell the willow about your heart’s desire. Take a pliable stem and tie a loose knot in it. When your wish comes true, untie the knot, and thank the willow for your gift.