Nature Nugget: Why are Pussy Willows Fuzzy?

Male pussy willow starts emerging in late winter.

A bite-sized resource for learning about Vermont’s outdoors

Pussy willows are a sure sign of spring, as they are among the first plants to bloom. You’ll recognize the fuzzy nubs emerging from shiny buds, like the one above.

The fuzzy nubs are actually flower clusters

Blooming in late winter, these plants are exposed to the lingering cold. The flowers are protected by silky hairs that keep the flowers warm so they can develop and mature.

Salix discolor is the only official “pussy willow,” named for its resemblance to cats’ paws. However, all willows and poplars have this fuzzy stage.

Male and female flowers are found on separate plants

To reproduce, pollen from the pussy willows’ male flowers must reach the ovules (or eggs) in its female flowers. Pussy willows depend on insects to help move pollen between flowers. When the ovules are pollinated, they will develop into seeds. (You can see a diagram of the parts of a flower here.)

Male flowers turn yellow with pollen as they mature

The pussy willows photographed above are male flower clusters in an early stage of development. As they mature, you will see the yellow, pollen-laden stamens emerging from between the silver hairs (see below). At that stage, insects will visit the flowers for nectar, and inevitably transfer the pollen. This will fertilize the female flowers, and seeds will develop.

Pollen-laden stamen emerge between the silver hairs of the pussy willows.

Pollen-laden stamen emerge between the silver hairs of the pussy willow.

 

There are 16 native willow species in Vermont

There are also a few non-native species like weeping willow. All but one of the native species are shrubs, and they can be hard to tell apart, especially in spring before the leaves emerge. Our native willows occupy a variety of habitats, including thickets, damp areas, wet meadows, shorelines, shrub swamps, fens, and mountaintops.” 

pussy willow shrubs in native habitat by water

 

Written by Liz Thompson, Director of Conservation Science at Vermont Land Trust.


This educational post is part of our #StayGroundedVT campaign to help Vermonters stay connected to nature, find tools to teach their kids about nature, and support farms producing local food. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to get the latest!