Little fuzzy cat paws, that’s what they resemble. And the name just stuck.
This harbinger of spring, the pussy willow, is anything but.
In the year of “pussy hats” and other misuses of this word, how appropriate to find out that the pussy willow branches that we often associate with Easter are not really pussies or exclusively willows. The name, I’m told, comes from the likeness of the fine grey fur that covers the male “catkins” to that of a pussy cat.
So the tree is not a willow, but could refer to any of the genus Salix (small willows and sallows), and the pussy, is not a cat.
I’ve never come across them in Virginia, but while out on a walk the other day in some wetlands here in New York, I spotted these whitish buds from afar. Like anything that you’ve only read about, the charm of finally seeing them in real life, in their natural environment, feels quite like uncovering a treasure.
The key about spotting them here – where winter dominates the landscape still – is that these catkins come out before any leaves appear on the branches. In warmer climates, perhaps they are hidden by the new leaves springing up around them.
April in the northwest, finds the hills still covered by dirty snow and trash the only roadside interest. And again, this seems to heighten my delight when discovering the budding branches.
These small trees look like all the other small trees around them, save the small white buds. As the catkins get bigger they get furrier and then finally form a green covering. The branches will easily root in a vase of water or can be propagated by cutting a single branch and sticking it directly in the ground in the spring. Often referred to as softwood cuttings, other plants that can be propagated this way include: dogwood, asters, butterfly bush, chrysanthemum, hydrangea and rose bushes, to name just a few.
'Softwood' refers to new growth - less than a year old. Cuttings should be a nice straight branch, at least as thick as a pencil, and a foot or more in length for direct sticking. At least one or two buds must be above ground when the cutting is set. My mother-in-law has a big lilac in her back yard that was propagated this way.
Pussy willows grow well in almost any soil, but it is a good idea to supplement it with peat moss, leaf mold, or compost. They require full sun to thrive, but will survive in the shade as well. As with most willows, they do best when given lots of water.
Although they can be allowed to grow unpruned, the plant will benefit from regular pruning after blooming. Prune the lowest branches back to the trunk, and prune for shape. You can even cut the tree back to a 6-inch stump every two to three years (and use the branches in spring arrangements); just remember that severe pruning results in longer stems and larger catkins.
And whether you buy branches from a florist, find them in the wetlands or grow your own, remember to enjoy the name with a little humor and fond sentiments that name calling doesn't have to be nasty.