Sunday, April 1, 2012

Foraging-ish: The Common Pussy Willow

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. – Proverb

One of the first flowering shrubs of Spring.
It’s almost a rite of Spring in Nova Scotia. Many of us go searching for one of the first – if not the first – blooming shrub of the new year to decorate our homes. We call them Pussy Willows. A large vase can certainly make a statement on a table.

Why I say "among the first flowering shrubs" is that I also noted this weekend that the alder catkins were almost fully opened as well. I'm not sure, but I think they may be a little earlier than usual. I wonder why...


Why the name pussy willows?
There’s a children’s rhyme (probably uncommon now) that reinforces the name. It goes:

I know a little pussy, her coat is silver gray.
She lives down in the meadow, not very far away.
Though she is a pussy, she’ll never be a cat.
She is a pussy willow. Now what do you think of that!

As far as a historical reason, I really can’t find one. There is a morbid myth that tells of kittens being drowned and the willow taking pity on them. As they were swept by the willow bent into the water to scoop them up and rescued them. From that time forward every Spring the “pussies” show themselves nestled in the branches of their saviour.

At least it’s a positive story of pets being rescued from a gruesome fate… 

So the long and the short of it is nobody knows why they’re called pussy willows, but it seems that it is linked to childhood stories.


This shrub was about 10 feet tall. There is a tree
in the village that must be 40 feet, but I'm certain
that it's not Salix discolour.
Salix discolour
In North America their botanical name is Salix discolour, and they are one of only three species commonly called "pussy willow" in the world. The other two are Salix caprea (native to Europe and Asia) and Salix cinerea (Europe only).

Salix is the genus that encompasses willow, osier and sallow trees.

This medium-sized multi-branching shrub is native to the northern forests and wetlands all across Canada and the northeastern USA. It is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing up to 6 m (18-20 feet) tall, with brown branches. 

Like all willows, pussy willow bushes contain salicin, a natural pain killer. Pussy willows were used by Native North Americans for that property.

The common name for the shrub is due to the flower forms which are actually soft, silvery catkins. They are borne on the bare branches before the new leaves appear. That makes them very easy to spot when you’re looking. For the rest of the year the bushes are extremely non-descript, so remember where you found them if you want to go back in subsequent springs.


Regardless of myth or scientific discussion, it was darned cold getting them this morning. There was frost on everything and at 7am it must have been about -8°C. My Bouvier-son Henry and I took a mile stroll down the road in the village where I grew up to search for two things: pussy willows, and any signs of mayflowers (trailing arbutus). 

We found pussies. No signs of mayflowers yet, but I bet it will only be a couple weeks before they can be found and forced to open by bringing them home. 

I gathered a few pussy willow branches and gave them to my mother. Taking my gloves off to take pictures made for icy fingers... I’m glad she appreciated the downy sprigs.

If you are thinking of gathering your own pussy willows – and you’re in the same weather zone as Nova Scotia – now is the time to go looking. They are just about to reach their peak. Another week and they may very well be past their prime.

………………………………….

If you like this post retweet it using the link at top right, or share it using any of the links below.
Questions? Comments? Derogatory remarks?

2 comments:

  1. can you send some of the pussy my way ? happy spring! trevor

    ReplyDelete
  2. Too far T... Try looking for the two that are native in Europe! All the best.

    ReplyDelete