Fuzzy & Fierce
Contrary to popular belief, the pussy willow is one of the toughest plants in existence.
- By: Richard Grant
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
A grave misunderstanding about pussy willows has taken root in the public mind. To be blunt, it’s a gender thing. People imagine there is something dainty, something soft and delicate, something pretty — something, to come down to it, feminine — about this well-known feature of earliest spring, whose fuzzy catkins pop open about the time the first robins are jostling to get their worm.
The plant we are talking about, the common pussy willow, is a North American native whose natural range extends roughly from Newfoundland to Delaware. This is a stretch of earth that, for all its merits, cannot be praised for benign winters, deep and fertile soils, or the shyness of local pests. Plants that manage to thrive here are necessarily sturdy, adaptable, winter-savvy beasts. The pussy willow is one of the toughest plants in existence.
You can hardly kill one if you try. That dainty, delicate schtick is pure hogwash.
Let us seize the pussy by the horns. Those soft, puffy outgrowths — the pussies themselves — are blatant displays of virility. They are the plant’s primary sexual characteristics, its reproductive equipment, brandished for the titillation of passing insects (of which there are always a few around, even in the chill of March). But not only that. In all likelihood, the pussies you admire by the roadside, and possibly snip to stick in a vase on your mantel, are the masculine reproductive parts. For pussy willows are dioecious — which is to say that, as with hollies, a given plant is either a boy or a girl. Males boast larger and fluffier catkins, and are more eager to show them off. It’s not uncommon, in Maine, to see pussy willows blossoming in one spot while snow lingers in another. This is just a case of boys being boys. The girls tend to hold off flowering for another couple of weeks — by which time, their smaller catkins must compete with other roadside attractions.
One of the reasons for studying nature, I think, is that patterns and meanings, like the living threads of an ecosystem, lead everywhere. The story of the pussy willow is one of
gender roles played out in often surprising ways.
Look at the pussy again, more closely. What makes it soft and seemingly delicate is the very thing that makes it tough. Those hairlike threads are like the downy breast feathers of, say, a chickadee. They trap heat, insulating the vital organs within from the harsh world outside. On sunny days, the interior of a willow catkin grows warm, stimulating the production of nectar. Since there’s not much doing at that time of year, nectar-wise, the pussies enjoy the undivided attention of whatever insects are about. Males are puffier because they pop out earlier, when the air is colder. Everything connects; and this particular connection runs all the way to the nursery trade. Pussy willows sold commercially are propagated by cuttings from male plants. They are not only boys, but clones.
It’s fair to ask why one should spend money on so commonplace a plant. I guess the best answer — in terms we Mainers can grasp — is that the pussy willow is not only as tough as duct tape; it’s darn near as useful, too.
Books on landscaping widely recommend plants in the willow genus, known botanically as Salix, for growing in damp, marshy, or waterside conditions. Willows are not fussy about soil, and their root systems are wide and dense, so they help prevent erosion. The native pussy willow, Salix discolor (like its close European cousin, S. caprea) has the further advantage that it does not “sucker” or form new plants from the roots. This makes it preferable to other damp-loving natives — the alder, for instance — for planting by a stream or pond. An alder will hold the soil, all right — but it will also try to convert that whole end of your property into an alder thicket.
One old gardening book notes that the pussy willow is “of special value because it coppices well.” You don’t hear much now about coppicing, an old form of pruning that harks back to when plants were prized for utility, rather than looks. When you coppice a tree, you cut it back severely — in extreme cases, right to the ground. You might do this if you want to use the wood for something (fencing material, perhaps) while leaving the tree to regenerate. Or you might coppice an entire row of plants to maintain a dense hedge to keep your cattle in (and poachers out). Some trees lend themselves to coppicing better than others. The pussy willow, reputedly, can be sawn off practically to the roots and will spring right back, lusty as ever.
This regenerative quality — the fact that you can’t kill the damn thing — must connect somehow with another well-attested trait, the pussy willow’s eagerness to root. If you stick a fresh cutting in water, or even straight in the dirt, it will generally form new roots before long. An English garden writer chainsawed a pile of willow trunks into waist-high sections to build a fence. Some weeks later, to his surprise, he found that his fence posts were sprouting leaves, having rooted in the holes where they were stuck.
From a living fence, it is a short stroll to the living chair. Detailed plans for such a thing appear in a book on making garden furniture. This odd creature requires “twelve live, pliable tree whips,” each five or six feet long. You stick the willow cuttings in four holes to form the chair legs. Then you bend and graft them in a cunning fashion to form the seat, arms, and back. The author notes that you can have the fun of telling your friends, “Excuse me, but I have to go water my chair!”
One of the village librarians, who is also a folk singer and a gardener of organic tilt — they say no one in Maine does only one thing — confirms that such a project ought to succeed. She herself uses pussy willow prunings to make wattle fencing — a practice that keeps the plants compact and bushy. She claims that water in which willow cuttings have soaked can be used to encourage other plants to root. This librarian is the only person I know who has sought out exotic types of willow for her garden. This year, a black-catkined variety produced its first little pussy. “It was so cute!” she gushed, which I took as a sign of thwarted maternal instinct. I think the black-pussied willow must be a cultivated form of the species Salix gracilistyla called ‘Melanostachys’, which is native to Japan, China, and Korea. Similar in form to the native S. discolor, this species is said to produce bigger and more colorful catkins, even in its wild form. Its plain-English name is rosegold willow.
There are numerous cultivated forms of the species, with names like ‘Pendula’ and ‘Weeping Sally’. Some of the snobbier reference books tout these refined specimens over the vulgar native, at which one authority sniffs as being “inferior for landscape use. ”
I don’t know. I guess it depends on what sort of landscape you’re talking about.
I’ve lived in Maine for twenty-one winters, some which have been gentler than others. During this time I have come to respect and admire the living things (of assorted genuses) that look as though they belong here, however rough and winter-tempered they may be, over the more highly bred and persnickety specimens that seem better suited to environments like a manicured lawn in the Hamptons, or a corporate campus in Delaware. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. But if I were the owner of a damp and difficult patch of Maine countryside, and if I found a pussy willow or two growing there, I would consider myself well favored enough. Though I wouldn’t take a lot of guff from those young lads when spring comes and their hormones are up.
- By: Richard Grant
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo