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.

25 Replies to “April Brights: Male Catkins”

  1. Such an interesting post. I didn’t know catkins could be male or female but now I do I’ll know what I’m looking at when I see any. I love the kitten stories even if they aren’t really true 🙂

    1. It is a pity so much of our folklore is effectively lost. It’s as if we see it as a sign of progress to ignore our connections to the natural world.

  2. oh these are gorgeous, they are such a happy sight in spring.

    The legends though are something else. Are they true or are you playing an April fool – already have one square fool played!!

    1. Well, that’s an idea. Are the legends true…? I did think of trying to make one up about mice or perhaps shrews for my own entertainment as they seem more like them than kittens, but I didn’t make the April fool connection as it was past midday.

  3. I wonder if that’s the reason that our common springtime plant was called ‘pussy willows.’ I’d always assumed it was because of that silky ‘fur’ that the catkins have, but I like the legends.

  4. Thank you for both the images and the — dare I say? — cat tales. I didn’t know any of those stories, and those are some of the best things about plants. Your descriptions, as always, merge botany and imagery, and on so many levels. (On a different note — in my Reader, it says that you posted this 20 hours ago. I didn’t get it until now. I don’t know where it’s been, but I’m glad it finally came through.)

    1. You dare. The Reader decided to ignore this post when first published. I had pretty much given up on it seeing the light of day until seeing your comment. I’m glad, like the daffodils, it managed to raise its head despite the obstacles.

    1. I like the tales too. They always have true elements underpinning them – that willows are often found by a stream, for example.

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