As long as I can remember, collecting pussy willow branches for spring decoration has been a tradition in my family. To this day, I scout the ditches on our family’s property for budding pussy willows. Once I see the first sight of those silvery buds, I call my Grandma and we make the trek into the swampy ditches with our pruners in hand. Nowadays, Grandma is usually my scout from a distance, while I am knee-deep in the muck to get the prized branches.
The pussy willows (Salix discolor) are large shrubs that grow to about 20 feet tall in wet areas along with alders and other native willows. Like other willows, branches root easily in water, so thickets of pussy willows are very common in wetlands and around waterways. Usually in Mid-March, with increased sunshine and warmer conditions, the smooth and sharp bud scales start to pop open with silky smooth buds inside reminiscent of kitten fur.
Pussy willow branches represent a new beginning in spring. The wetlands are usually still brown and dormant, but if you look up into the shrubs, you will see fuzzy little beacons of hope. The oversized fuzzy buds are actually the reproductive parts of a male willow called catkins. The fuzzy layer protects the male flower parts through the winter. Once the temperatures steadily increase, the catkins swell and start to produce pollen in order to pollinate the female willow flowers. Once successful pollination has occurred, the females release their seeds in a silky covering to be whisked away by the wind.
In the next few weeks, be on the lookout for these fuzzy treasures. If they are not quite the size you would like them to be, you can force them by putting them in some water. If the branches are at a peak, do not put them in water because they will start to produce pollen. The branches usually dry beautifully. Pussy willows make a great centerpiece for your Easter and spring gatherings.