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TED MANZER

Pussy willows tell us spring is on the way

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By Ted Manzer
Columnist

Friday, February 2, 2018

I know we’ve had some rough weather for this area. We’ve had substantial damage to some of our landscaping too. However, some shrubs have begun to awaken from their slumber. I’m speaking of pussy willows.

Pussy willows are hardy shrubs to small trees, and they’re not common around here. We’re on the southern reaches of their range. These plants with the furry grayish flower buds are one of the first woody plants to break winter dormancy. I was at the Asheboro zoo recently and the pussy willows were near their peak of attractiveness.

Some plants were showier than others. As you might suspect, they are a dioecious species, meaning entire plants are either male or female. Male plants are generally more dramatic than female ones.

The furry buds are protected by a single bud scale. This silvery grayish material protects the male or female flower parts until later in the season when the pollen matures and is spread by insects. At this time the hairs wither and flowers become yellowish green and unattractive.

Pussy willows are a fast growing species. They also thrive in full sun to partial shade and are a terrific landscape choice in wet areas. They also naturalize well at the edge of wooded areas or along streams. As one might expect, willows tolerate wet places very well.

These plants are great for informal landscaping. They require very little pruning, but they can be shaped to form attractive specimen plants or a hedge, especially if one wants a tall hedge.

They are also extremely easy to propagate. Simply stick a piece or dormant branch into the ground and it will most likely grow. It’s that easy, at least on moist soils. They are not the best choice on dry sites.

Another advantage of pussy willow is that since it flowers so early it is one of the few food sources for pollinators in the late winter and early spring. Believe it or not, pollinators and nectar feeders are out when we have a stretch or mild winter days.

Butterflies and songbirds love the flowers. Songbirds thin the insects that flock there as part of their winter food. Hummingbirds often use the furry stuff from them to line their nests.

As with most willows, pussy willow has extensive roots. This makes it great for conservation purposes but bad if planted near septic tanks and leach fields.

At this time of year when the flower buds are showy they can be cut and used in floral arrangements and other crafts. They also can be preserved by drying. Dried pussy willow branches maintain their attractiveness for a long time.

As is the case with other willows, the bark of pussy willow can be made into an analgesic tea. All willows contain varying amounts of salicylic acid, an aspirin derivative.

As with all collected herbal medication, use caution. It’s difficult to know how much active ingredient you’re ingesting. If you are sensitive to aspirin you should avoid it altogether. Always consult your medical professional before trying anything new.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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