Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Easter Pussy Willows

the sun gleaming through a pussy willow tree with fuzzy catkins

Hello fellow readers, Outside the screened porch is a stump of what was a large pussy willow planted by the previous owners. It was in severe decline before we cut it down last fall. It typically bloomed around Easter, which is likely why we decorate with pussy willows during the holiday. But there’s more to the story about Easter Pussy Willows I look forward to sharing with you.

A pussy willow in bloom next to a white barnPussy Willows are important for pollinators. 

I felt sad when we cut the tree down, having enjoyed the fuzzy puffs in early spring each year. Then they’d fall to the ground creating a blanket for birds to pilfer to build their nests. The beloved pussy willows bud-like puffs are, in fact, flowers. They are one of the first to bloom, providing essential food for early pollinators. Plus, they are hosts for several species of butterflies.

It seems fitting that pussy willow flowers are called “cat-kins.” They’re dioecious (die-A-shus), which means the male and female reproductive organs are on different plants. The male catkins are more prominent and showier than the more demure and slender greenish females. Both are fuzzy to keep their “personal parts” warm in the late winter temps. Other plants also have catkins, like birch, hickory, and chestnut, but they aren’t as cute and fuzzy.

Stories of why they are named Pussy Willows 
tips of pussy willow branches with puffy catkins against a bright blue sky

As the legend goes, fuzzy pussy willow blooms are where the kittens once clung.

They say the name pussy willow comes from a legend of a mother cat on a riverbank crying over her kittens who had fallen in chasing butterflies. The willows lent a hand by bending their branches into the water for the kittens to grab on to. The fuzzy pussy willow blooms each Spring are where the kittens once clung.

Another version of the legend has to do with a farmer annoyed his barn cat had yet another litter of kittens and opted to toss them in the river. Gratefully the story has the same happy ending; willow branches saved the kittens, and we now have spay and neuter programs.

Native versus Goat Pussy Willows 

Willows like damp soil, so planting them to soak up wetness is ideal, preferably in full sun though they can take part shade—at least 4 hours of the direct sun primarily before midday.

Ours was likely the native pussy willow, Salix discolor, which is not a favorable landscape plant because it’s prone to disease and considered messy dropping twigs and branches. Salix caprea, native to Europe and Asia, is the pussy willow more commonly used. Also known as goat willow (caprea means goat in Latin), their male catkins are more significant than the indigenous willow, one to two inches long and pinkish-grey.

Goat willow quickly grows fifteen to twenty-five feet tall and wide and are ideal for screening or hedges and rain gardens in zones 4 to 8. They can handle wetness and drier soil more than other willows and grow under black walnut. Some say to cut them to the ground every three to five years to maintain them as a smaller shrub or hedge.

Last Spring, to my delight, shoots came from our pussy willow stump. But in early fall, the deer nibbled them down. (According to the Rutgers Deer Resistant list, Salix is Rated C – Occasionally Severely Damaged until the foliage is above the browsing height.) Still, I have hope a few shoots survived the winter and will grow to resurrect the beloved tree.

a brnach of a pussy willow with puffy blooms with yellow pollen The Legend of Easter Pussy Willows

It’s a tradition to include pussy willows in Palm Sunday services, especially in Slavic nations. Polish lore has it that Jesus walked through a forest, still stark in winter surrounds, on Palm Sunday. He asked his angels to collect fuzzy flowering branches of pussy willows, the first branches showing signs of new life.

May we never forget or forsake the Miracle and the Blessings of Hope as we celebrate the new season of growth. Happy Easter. Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com (and on your favorite Podcast App.)

   A Fun Tip:  If you cut willow branches before the yellow pollen develops (on the males) and bring them inside as a decoration, they’ll dry and last for some time. Or, if you choose to put them in water, they’ll easily root and make babies. You’ll enjoy a long-ago story shared by Gloria titled Rooting and Planting Willow Branches.

There’s more to the story you’ll enjoy in Episode 52 of the Garden Dilemmas Podcast.

 

Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary

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