Pussy willows, hard to resist

 Tom Brandt/Flicker

Tom Brandt/Flicker

Pussy willows are one of those plants that seem designed for a child’s pleasure — those soft and fuzzy little catkins just beg to be petted.

I hadn’t thought of this winter treat in a while until I ran into pussy willows at my specialty produce market. I was impressed all over again with the irresistible appeal of these cute little cat toes clothed in silvery fur, marching up stems of silky mahogany bark. 

Eavesdropping on shoppers taken by the display, I heard variations on a single theme: “Pussy willows! I love pussy willows!” How very like the uncomplicated joy of running into an old friend or suddenly having a flashback to a moment from kiddiehood.   

It’s funny how in virtually every culture that knows them, these plants are named after cats.

One Eastern European tale claims a cat mother was crying at the banks of a river in which her kittens were drowning, appealing for help. The willows at the river’s edge swept their thin, supple branches into the water to rescue the babies, and each spring they sprout fur-like buds where the tiny kittens once clung.

Another, darker tale talks of a farmer who tossed an unwanted litter of kittens into the turbulent waters of a river. Tumbled around in the current, the sack that held them came untied. The flailing kittens were rescued by the sympathetic willows that extended their branches like lifelines. Desperate kitties and kindly plants are the theme in pussy willow legend.  

Notice that in these stories, we are always at a river bank. That’s because willows in general, including those that bear furry catkins, like a damp spot with plenty of water. In fact, farmers with poorly drained land have been urged to consider these plants as a crop for the florist trade.

There are more varieties of pussy willow than most people generally appreciate. The most common are Salix discolor with silvery fur, but this species also has a variant, rosea, that bears pinkish catkins.

The giant pussy willow, Salix chaenomeloides, produces the longest, fattest  catkins (up to 21⁄2 inches long) and is the most vigorous grower. There is even a black pussy willow, Salix melanostachys, and a couple of species that bear silvery catkins on twisted stems, like the corkscrew willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa.’ Who knew?   

The catkins themselves are actually flowers, male flowers. The furry stage we like best is the flower in bud, the strands of ‘‘fur’’ being tightly bunched stamens. These hairs will eventually elongate, each bearing a grain of greenish pollen -- something you can witness if you keep them long enough in the vase.

The stems root so easily in damp soil that you can often create your own shrub by just plunging purchased stems into a permanently moist location outdoors. Plant them firmly, leaving at least three or four buds above ground.

If you want to preserve pussy willows in their furry catkin form to use them in dried arrangements, you need a different strategy. Put them in a container without water or bundle the branches and hang them upside down in a cool, dry spot like a closet.

Keep in mind, too, that other critters also greet the appearance of pussy willows with joy. Bees active during warm spells are glad for the early pollen and will take what they need, leaving your shrub unharmed. Not so with beaver, grouse, muskrats and red squirrels, which love to eat the buds, and deer, which will happily gobble down the branches.

But isn’t that always the way? You have a popular item, you can expect some competition. That’s why pussy willows sell like hotcakes at flower shows, produce markets and florists this time of year. They are a foretaste of spring itself, something you can pet and hang onto while winter does its worst. These little catkins don’t need a litter box and won’t scratch the furniture. What’s not to like?