One of the very first signs that spring is coming is the appearance of soft, fuzzy pussy willows on willow bushes in the ditches along the highways and byways. These delightful “blooms” are a welcome sight to those who are eagerly looking forward to spring and many of us “older folk” can remember doing artwork with pussy willows in the one-room country schoolhouses which we attended back in the days before school district consolidation. I can remember one project that involved dusting the pussy willows with the dry powdered tempra paint that was a mainstay of the art supply cupboard in schools of that era. The pussy willows looked quite spectacular as they took on the different colours of the paint powder.
Although wild pussy willows are still common in the wild, domestic pussy willows produced by trees planted in landscapes for that specific purpose are not nearly as common. The first such pussy willow tree that I remember seeing was in the yard of my parents-in-law on their farm near Basswood. My mother-in- law had received some cut flowers for Easter and when she went to throw them out she salvaged a stem of pussy willow that had been included in the bouquet and stuck it into the ground. Willow cuttings root quite easily – many a rural shelterbelt has been expanded in just such a manner – and before very many years there was a full-grown pussy willow tree gracing the farmyard.
This tree produced large pussy willows, much larger than any of the wild ones; giant, fuzzy balls were produced in abundance along the length of the long stems. Every spring some would be cut to fill vases with pussy willows – they were displayed in vases but without water. Pussy willows will naturally dry if cut and allowed to dry, whereas they will go past and form catkins if the stems are placed in water. Several family members over the years took cuttings from the tree so there are a number of these pussy willow trees in the area.
The pussy willow tree, after its display of pussy willows has disappeared, is not a particularly striking ornamental tree in the landscape during the rest of the year. It tends to be a rather twiggy tree and like most willows, produces a fair bit of litter. It is best used in a shelterbelt or perimeter planting combined with other trees and shrubs where it will not have to stand front and centre. The trees are also quite large and therefore are not particularly suitable for an urban landscape; they are more commonly grown on rural properties. Pussy willow trees, therefore, are not commonly carried by nurseries although one nursery that I know of lists a weeping pussy willow standard while another lists a yellow twig pussy willow which only grows two metres tall – I suspect it is more of a shrub than a tree. Both of these trees would fit into an urban landscape better than a full-fledged pussy willow tree. None of the three willows listed in the Agriculture Canada catalogue for the Prairie Shelterbelt Program produces pussy willows.
If you are planning a family wedding this spring – or any other social function – you might like to collect and dry some pussy willows to incorporate into your table centres or other decorations. Pussy willows can stand alone in a vase but also combine nicely with either fresh or dried flowers. There is nothing that shouts “spring!” more loudly than a large vase of pussy willows. They are truly harbingers of the season on the Prairies.
– Albert Parsons writes from