March Among the Willows

As March begins, all of us are keeping watch for signs of spring, and after this year’s rather old-school winter, I am all ears and eyes.

The very earliest sounds of spring have been sporadic so far: the occasional dripping of melting snow and ice, the early morning song of the cardinal, the hooting of owls at night, and the drilling of woodpeckers. Soon, we will hear our earliest migratory songbird, the red-wing blackbirds. They are late this year, but they should arrive soon.

These first signs of spring, subtle though they may be, are expressions of an extraordinary toughness and resilience, and prepare the way for more delicate creatures that will follow once the frost comes out of the ground and the green world springs back to life. But what is the floral equivalent of those determined male blackbirds who risk late winter storms to secure breeding territory? It is none other than our sweet, familiar pussy willow (Salix discolor).

Those adorable balls of fur along the branches of our native willow might remind us of helpless kittens, but they are really more like tough feral tomcats. Like all members of the willow family, the little furry balls are actually immature flowers known as catkins. The catkins are male flowers on male plants; the female flowers on female plants look slightly different. But unlike other members of the willow family, which are wind-pollinated (hence the dangly catkins of poplars, for instance), willow flowers are pollinated by insects. Each male stamen has its own protective fur coat, so that insulating hairs will retain the meager spring heat and raise the temperature enough to allow for the development of pollen inside the catkin. This clever strategy allows the pussy willow to flower early, making it a critical source of pollen and nectar for our native bees and flies.

I have fond memories of a pussy willow that grew in the corner of my cutting garden. My first forays into the garden on a sunny day, when it was just warm enough to work the soil, meant that I was never alone. The pussy willow, at this stage bright yellow with pollen, would be such a magnet for all the early pollinating insects that there would be a loud and constant buzz as the whole tree vibrated with life.

If you head out to wetlands in the area, you can see the pussy willow transformation for yourself. If you have a few pussy willow stems, put one in water and watch spring arrive on your windowsill. As the cut branch takes up water, it will continue to expand while the stamens and pollen develop. Eventually, the pollen will drop onto the sill as the willow leafs out along the branch and roots into the water. You can even transplant your willow outside once the danger of frost has passed.

In Millbrook, we have native black willows (Salix nigra) that grow on the banks just below the dam. Their extensive root systems keep the banks firm even during floods. And even if the tree were to collapse and be swept away in pieces, the original willow might come back from the root, while the dispersed branches, potentially carried far away, are able to root into new homes along the bank, just like your pussy willow branch in a vase. Willow branches may be brittle, but the tree itself is as tough as they come.

Native willows are adapted to wet soils and are critical components of our wetlands, so most are not great choices for home landscapes, but I would make an exception for pussy willows. They are large shrubs or small trees but will take hard pruning if required. They are second only to oaks as host plants for many butterflies and moths, including viceroys, commas, sphinx moths, and mourning cloaks.

We often use military metaphors to describe the “battle” between winter and spring, and maybe it does seem rather pitched at times, but these early signs of renewal reveal all kinds of clever strategies. Those first red-winged blackbirds are tough. The pussy willow has strength in numbers, producing vast quantities of pollen in the hope that just a few will reach their destination. And mourning cloaks will appear on warm days, even when the snow is still on the ground, to feed on the sap of maple trees. Unbelievably, they overwinter as adult butterflies in the bark of trees or log piles. Even a creature as delicate as a butterfly is capable of great feats of resilience, and even broken trees may spring back to life.

GET OUT! by Lisa Stefaniak 

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