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An early sign of spring

According to notes I made on some unfathomable time in the past (about the time, I imagine, the first 2014 calendars started showing up in my mailbox), I wanted to write this month about the pussy willow.

According to those same notes of yore, I have an article to read as a starting point for all the erudite information I hope to espouse. Oh.

Well, the vocabulary in my mind is certainly working overtime but I have checked my scrapbook of nature clippings, my card-file of miscellaneous information, and even the notes around the new calendar.

Spiders. (Again!) Sunscreen. (Again!!) and lots of information hardly pertinent to the subject or the month.

Why, for that matter, should I do pussy willows at all when we are still in the dead of winter? Because, I suppose, they are a highly-valued early sign of spring. And what could be better about now? Although I have the photos, I hadn’t even added their page to my wildflower album. Later. But soon.

I think we all know what the pussy willow catkin looks like and they can flower as early as February so do keep your eyes open.

I did not know that the sexes varied. I thought a pussy willow “bloom” was just that. Nope. Growing on different plants, the males have bright yellow stamen so the flower, about two inches long, appears yellow. Audubon can’t resist adding that the plants bearing the male catkin are “especially showy compared to the more drab female catkins.” Wouldn’t you know it? The female flower is greenish though half an inch longer. Some compensation!

Whatever.

These plants are considered a large shrub or even a small tree as they can reach up to twenty feet in height. Apparently, they are only found in the eastern half of the United States.

I’m sure by now you’ve noticed the connection between the “pussy” and the “catkin.” And indeed it is a form of willow.

I would happily have settled for that as the reason for its name but I would therefore have been in error. It’s suggested the name also comes from the bud being as “soft and furry as a pussy-cat.” Well, maybe. But then deeper digging suggests the name comes not from the buds’ fur but from the French word “pousse” meaning “budded.” I leave that for you to decide.

The catkin flowers long before the leaves appear. Hoping to make a full page for my album, twice I have tied a ribbon on my large bush when it’s still in the identifiable “kitty” stage. I wanted to photograph the leaf. For weeks I’d check every time I walked past the plant, looking for those leaves.

Weeks turned into months as it seemed as determined not to put forth leaves as I was to see them. I’m not sure now: either I ultimately forgot or the leaf photos ended up with so many others as “unidentified.” I will do better this year. I will.

There is one thing about this plant that I should pass on to the uninitiated. If it doesn’t involve trespassing (one of my books does list it as a WILDflower), the cut branches are a lovely addition to a vase indoors. Forcing forsythia about now may produce more colorful results but there is definitely a place for an arrangement of pussy willows.

Only beware: the forsythia needs water to flower. Put pussy willow branches in water, however, and roots will sprout and the catkins will fall off. These need to be kept dry. Then one could presumably keep them around for years.

It’s all a question of what one wants. But do go for the forsythia, too.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com