The pussy willow is generally associated with early spring, but for the British, Russians and the Poles, more specifically associated with (the greater sense of) Easter, and most of all with the ritual of Palm Sunday. Palm fronds were hard to come by in northern Europe in the days before people ate oranges out of season, and from Baltic Russia to the British Isles pussy willows “bloom” roughly synchronous the Sunday before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (i.e. Palm Sunday), so they were at hand and attractive.
In addition to subbing for palms on Palm Sunday, willows figure in Easter Monday tradition in Poland (and in the United States where there are large Polish populations). In a holdover from their pagan past, the Poles practice a courting ritual on the day after Easter, which involves boys dumping water on unmarried girls and switching them with willow wands. Dyngus and Smigus were twin pagan gods associated with water and lightning, respectively. The dumping of water is the predominant tradition, which led to calling the holiday “Dyngus Day.” (Happily for young women the Smigus part of the “game” – the aggressive brandishing of willow wands – has not widely persisted.)
“Pussy willow” is not a single species of willow, but rather a group of taxa that produce densely fibrous, gray catkins immediately before blooming. In Europe Salix caprea, the “goat willow,” is the species most often referred to as the pussy willow, while in North America it is Salix discolor. Several other species, however, produce similar looking catkins.
Willows are dioecious (“two houses”), which is to say that male and female flowers are carried on different plants in a population. The “pussies” are the male catkins in Salix species. “Catkin” itself is borrowed from the Dutch katteken, or kitten.
Pussy willows grow as many-trunked shrubs, generally in wet places. They are probably most noticeable during the catkin stage, which are visible before leaves emerge on the willows or on anything around them. Depending on the warmth of the days, the catkins can remain gray and furry for days to weeks before the golden flowers burst out of them. On the male plants these are staminate flowers; they have only stamens, no pistils. The reverse is true on the female plants.
After they leaf out willows turn into a fairly anonymous mass of foliage lining streams and creating islands of greenery in wet meadows. Without their distinctive catkins, they are unlikely to be referred to as “pussy willows,” but instead for the rest of the year the same plants will be called “goat willows” or whichever species they may be.
In March and early April the pussy willows can be collected and brought inside as a spring display. They are weedy shrubs and will last quite a while in a vase full of water. In fact, they may eventually burst into bloom in a warm house. If you have a case of spring fever in January or February, you can even bring dormant branches indoors and force them to produce catkins well before they appear on the shrubs outdoors. They can also be put in vases without water and will make attractive dried arrangements as well.
Pussy willows may even begin to send out roots in the vase. If you had to go over hill and dale to collect your bouquet and would rather have the source near at hand in the future, simply stick the wands in the ground and they are likely to grow. If this is done in the early spring, then it isn’t even necessary to wait for roots to form. A foot-long pencil-thick cutting from the most recent year’s growth will readily start a new plant if stick in the ground.
This is a potentially invasive shrub; they spread by their roots and will form a dense clump above the ground and invade septic systems and water mains below ground. On the other hand, the catkins are a preferred source of food for several bird species, including ruffed grouse, and with proper pruning can form a dense barrier very quickly (even during the leaf-less winter) for those looking for a “green fence.”