Salix, the Willow family, claims more than 400 members, with a range from the tropics all the way up to being the last woody plant before you are stumbling across the Arctic Circle. Many kinds are native to western China, including the magnificent but weak-wooded Weeping Willow, but North America claims her share as well, about 75 varieties. Pussy Willow is one of these, although there are several willows with that name.
Go to your local garden center, and you’ll probably find, well, you probably won’t find pussy willow at all. Garden centers have a hard time selling very early or very late bloomers, like pussy willow or Witch hazel. Both bloom before most garden centers this far north are even open, and, during the regular growing season, these wonderful shrubs probably wouldn’t even catch your eye.
Should you happen upon one, though, probably in the sale bin, odds are it is a Salix caprea, a European Pussy willow also know as Goat Willow. Native from Europe to northeast Asia and northern Iran, it is nearly identical to our native species, Salix discolor. Our native form is more susceptible to canker, and have deeper brown branches and a nearly bluish white underside to the leaves, but it is the canker scaring plant propagators from growing the native species.
Pussy willow (both) reach about 15-25 feet high, and about 12-15′ in width. Native to wet, moist areas, they are frequently seen in marshes, wetlands, and on the edges of rivers and ponds. The ‘pussies’ we are familar with in kindergarten are male catkins, flowers with inconspicuous or, like Salix, no petals. While most catkins are designed for wind pollination, the Willows are known for insect pollination. Perhaps the non-showiness of the catkins is forgivable in the wild, as nothing else is in bloom, competing for the insects to visit them. For you pollinators among us, they are high-sugar flowers. At any rate, they are easy enough to force in a vase starting in February for the spring-desperate.
In the wild, Pussy Willow is an important source of food for browsing animals, such as deer and moose, although not the most palatable (who asks?). Duck and other waterfowl feed on the catkins in the early spring, while mice and other rodents can be found eating the stems in the winter.
Majorie Harris, in Botanica North America, writes of the Pussy Willow, and references a somewhat sketchy web site for the legend of how Pussy Willows got their name. It’s a Polish legend, and involves a sad, crying cat next to a river, whose kittens had fallen into while chasing Butterflies,as kids and kitts are likely to do. Hearing their cries, the Willow trees next to the banks swept down, arching into the river and allowing the kittens to cling to their branches, when they were safely brought to shore. Every spring since, the willow sprouts tiny fur-like buds at the tips of their branches in remembrance.
We have some Pussy Willows at Middlebury, but I had to do some thinking to remember where. While there undoubltalby some wild native species along Bi-Hall Road or the wetlands next to the Johnson Parking lot, the best species on campus proper are probably right next to Atwater Dining Hall, on the south side, where they were planted in the ditch that runs along there as part of the storm water mediation.