Just take two willows and see me in the morning

by Emily Stone Naturalist, Educator Cable Natural History Museum

Shimmering silver globules clung to slender twigs, reflecting the meager light from a leaden sky. More silver globules of a very different density pelted the leaf litter, the brim of my hat, and occasionally my cold-reddened ears. I suppose it has snowed on pussy willows before, since they are one of the earliest signs of spring, but the driving pellets of sleet on fuzzy flowers and tender skin felt like an affront to us both. It was enough to give me a headache.

Just a few days prior, I’d been admiring this patch of pussy willows as it was bathed in warm sunshine. I’d also squinted at the aspen flowers silhouetted against a bluebird sky. And I took note of the alder catkins as they dangled carelessly in the light breeze.

All three of these early spring bloomers have cylindrical flower clusters with inconspicuous petals, or no petals at all. Each catkin, as they’re called, contains many flowers along a drooping, central stem. All the flowers on any one catkin are either male or female and sometimes there is only one type of flower on a single plant. Botanists call this “dioecious” from the Greek words for two households.

Pussy willows are dioecious, as are the aspens (they are both in the willow family, Salicaceae).

Alders are monoecious (“one household”) and have both male catkins and female cone-like catkins on the same plant.

The advantage to having these long, dangling strings of reproductive structures is that a gentle breeze can easily wend its way through the still-leafless branches and carry a dusting of pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers.

It is the male flower buds of Salix discolor that we think of as pussy willows. As they mature, long filaments tipped by bright yellow pollen, and connected to nectar glands, extend their welcome to bees and other insects, as well as to the wind.

I paused to admire the subtle beauty of the day. Little droplets of water (or was it ice?) sparkled on the tips of the pearly, pussyfooted buds. The little balls of sleet made intricate patterns of expanding ripples on the dark gray water. And rich colors warmed the bark on the dense thicket of stems.

I have to admire willow for its tenacity. It blooms when there is still snow on the ground, lives where its feet are continuously wet, thrives even in marginal soils, and grows back with renewed vigor after being cut. This means that willows can be coppiced, or cut off so that long, straight, shoots grow anew. The new shoots can be used to weave baskets, or burned for energy.

Willow can also be harvested for medicine. Humans in many cultures had been using it for ages, but in 1763, Reverend Edward Stone (maybe my relation, who knows!), from Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, made the first scientific study of the effects of powdered willow bark. The bark contains the chemical salicin, which we metabolize into salicylic acid. It is the precursor to acetyl salicylic acid, now known as aspirin.

If you’ve ever taken an uncoated aspirin tablet, you’ll never forget the bitter, astringent flavor that dried out your tongue. Chewing on the tip of a twig from a willow or aspen will give you that same awful flavor. “Who would even do that!?” you might ask. Well, budding botanists wanting an easy way to identify a plant sometimes chew on suspected willow twigs, as do naturalists wanting to surprise students and instill an unforgettable lesson.

On this cold and blustery day, I was tempted wade through the muck and chew on a willow twig myself. It just might help to dull the pain of a slow and dreary spring!


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