A picture of the pussy willows I found at the dump last year because I have none to share this year.


Where have all the Pussy Willows gone?

Gathering pewter pussy willows (Salix discolor) has been a spring ritual for me for most of my life, much like listening to the first woodcock’s flight or anticipating the first quacking wood frogs. Up until two years ago when I couldn’t find any. I had healthy clumps on this property until the pines grew in, but even after they disappeared, I wasn’t concerned. Many clusters of willows lined the side road I used to walk regularly. Now this thoroughfare is widened every year, sometimes twice to
accommodate the traffic, and the willows have disappeared. I find this loss doubly distressing because pussy willows reproduce by seed and root. The roots clone themselves and are very persistent in growing new leaders even after being cut down. Maybe it was the salt.

One day last year as I drove into a gas station shining silver tufts caught my eye. Behind the garage was a garbage dump, and much to my delight (and relief), there were a few pussy willow twigs rising out of a crack in the cement. I carefully picked three small branches of shining silver blossoms, leaving the remainder for the bees. To my great dismay, yesterday when I returned to the spot it had been paved over. The pussy willows were gone. Discouraged, I added this loss to all the other missing woodland plants, frogs’ eggs, and wildflowers. Where will it end?

There was also something about the sight of a few pussy willows last year that sparked a shred of hope reminding me that nature will never cease to bring forth new life, even in garbage dumps. Nature perseveres. Imagine what might happen if we simply allowed Her to take the lead. S/he redresses imbalances and heals her wounds in Earth time (eons) but not ours, so humans interfere.

The words ‘progress and management’ have become synonymous in my mind with the human need to control (or destroy) wild places. At best we just can’t stop ‘recreating’ and ‘improving’. As one woman quipped, ‘I’m just giving nature a little push before sending her on her way’. In our terrible arrogance, we think we know more about what works and does not, when in truth as Merlin Sheldrake states ‘we know almost nothing’.


Pussy willows are one of the twenty-six species of willows found in Maine. This native shrub or small tree is usually found in open areas in moist to wet ground. Plants in the willow genus share similar characteristics. The leaves are almost always alternate and have small stipules or leaf-like appendages at the base of the leaf. The buds of male willows have only a single cap-like scale that becomes prominent as the soft gray catkin opens. Most species have very small female flowers. The catkins of both sexes are pollinated by both wind and insects.

Willow bark has an abundance of watery sap which is heavily charged with salicylic acid – the precursor of aspirin. The branches are slender and usually pliant. The large, fibrous roots have an astonishing ability to anchor themselves securely to the ground even when water is rushing by. The roots are remarkable for their strength and size.

Willows are among the earliest woody plants to leaf out in spring. Male and female catkins appear on separate clumps. The pussy willow paw is a catkin in the making.

For some native pollinators, willows offer the first important source of pollen and nectar. Look closely at the catkins that follow the buds and you will see small wasps, ants, bees, and a variety of flies foraging for nectar and pollen. Bears love catkins too!

Some list willows as second only to oaks in value as host trees for butterflies and moths like the mourning cloak, sphinx, and viceroy.

Leafrollers, sawflies, borers, midges, and gall gnats produce pine-cone galls, easily visible on twig tips when willows shed their leaves. These galls demonstrate benign co-evolution between a plant and an insect.

Willows comprise North America’s largest genus of tree-like plants. There are approximately one hundred species plus hybrids. Most willows may be short-lived, but they have a wide natural distribution from the tropics to arctic zones and are extensively cultivated around the world.

Few folks know that willows (true for other members of this family too – cottonwoods, aspen, poplar) absorb poisons like lead and other toxins cleansing the earth and water of pollutants wherever they happen to grow.

In my opinion, we should all take a few moments to give thanks for having such ‘giving trees’. Some of my poplars are
diseased, and I have often wondered if this is a result of their penchant for removing toxins from the ground.
I thank them every time I walk by.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: