April Brights: Male Catkins

Male pussy willow: catkin with yellow pollen
Male trees produce yellow pollen

When I happened upon Salix branches strung with yellow catkins, they made me think that bright is relative: on a dull late afternoon, they seemed like tiny candles.

I believe these are either Goat willow (Salix caprea) or Grey willow (Salix cinerea). It’s not easy to tell them apart at this stage while the stems are bare of leaves. Goat willows have broad, round leaves with bent, pointed tips; Grey willows have oval leaves with blunt ends.

Salix trees are male or female (dioecious). Male trees are the first to produce catkins. Shiny brown buds open to tiny flowers that are protected from cold spells by silky, silver-grey hairs that hide them.

Pussy willow with pollen

In March, male flowers produce stamens that are liberally dusted with bright yellow pollen. Female trees produce catkins that stay green.

As always with our best loved trees, stories and rituals abound. Girls traditionally wore a sprig of Salix to church on Palm Sunday. It is said that Angels strung them up to illuminate dull woodland.

Other, secular legends tell that willow trees leaning over a riverbank once took pity on a mother cat and scooped out with low-lying branches her tiny, grey kittens as they were being swept away. Furry buds still commemorate the rescue. According to the version of the tale, the kittens had been put in the river by a cruel farmer or fell in after chasing butterflies. Another kitten story says that cold, wet kittens climbed the trees and curled up in the branches to escape bad weather.

Both forms of Salix are widespread, water-loving, scrub-forming trees. If you cut a few stems of catkins for a vase, there’s a good chance they’ll have produced roots by the time the flowers are spent. You might think twice before planting them out in the garden as they can be invasive. Having said that, there are few sights more redolent of spring.

Male pussy willow

Shared to celebrate the first day of April Squares. This month’s subject is bright.

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