Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pussy Willows to the Rescue for Precocious Pollinators

As winter recedes into spring, the pollinators start emerging on warm, mild days. First the gnats, flies, and beetles, then the bumbles and other bees appear, hungry and ready to forage.  Finally now the early blooming flowers of spring are beginning to open here in New England to meet that demand.  But where did precocious pollinators go before now, on those sporadically warm but still barren days we got before those spring flowers started opening?  To find that answer, we have to look up...

emerging Pussy willow catkins
We don't often think of trees as great plants for pollinators, but they are actually some of the earliest available sources of pollen and nectar.  Here the American Pussy Willow, or Salix discolor, is one of the earliest bloomers around and a wonderful resource for bees and other early pollinators.  They break out of dormancy in late winter or very early spring, the distinctive furry coats on their catkins trapping heat from the sun to keep the developing reproductive parts warm.  

bee on male Pussy Willow tree
The furry emerging catkins open into white and yellowish odd sort of flowers.  Pussy Willows are dioecious, that is, they have male catkins and female catkins on different plants.  The earlier blooming male trees have the most to offer pollinators, with their catkin flowers containing both strongly scented nectar and pollen. The female willow trees, whose more greenish-colored catkins tend to open slightly later, offer only nectar.  

bee on female Pussy Willow catkin
While many trees with catkins are wind-pollinated, the Pussy Willow relies on insects for pollination. Its early flowering time proves beneficial, as there is much less competition for attracting pollinators when hardly anything else is in bloom!


The American Pussy Willow is native to much of the northern half of North America, and grows around 10 to 20 feet tall, usually with multiple stems.   Like many willows, it loves water and sun.  It grows wild all around the Red House Garden in the wetlands and in the detention pond we have out back. I love the Pussy Willows, as they are the first sign of the coming spring here.  Now that other trees and spring flowers are now starting to bloom, the Pussy Willows are finishing up for the season, leaves slowly replacing catkins.  Their job has been done...

a tiny pollinator on a male Pussy Willow catkin
...and what an important job it is to those early pollinators.

14 comments:

  1. Looks like a fantastic plant for your part of the country!

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    1. It's a wonderful plant, and one of those plants I remember from my childhood, too.

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  2. Hi Indie. Thank you so much for all the wonderful information. I didn't know how important Pussy Willows are to emerging pollinators. I'm so in love with them. They are a harbinger of spring here in MA and I always get a lift when I see their fuzzy faces in a barren landscape.

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    1. After winter, they are much appreciated here!

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  3. Hi Dear Indie!
    I love these plants. They testify of the coming of spring.
    You have a beautiful change of this plant.
    Greetings and hugs from Poland.
    Lucja

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  4. Wonderful photos, Indie! I didn't realize pussy willows were so important to pollinators. It makes me sad that the only pussy willow tree we had fell over in a bad storm several years ago. I've noticed lots of bumbles the past two weeks, so they must be finding something else here to enjoy. Happy Spring!

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    1. Oh that's too bad your tree didn't make it. That's great you've been seeing lots of bumblebees though anyway. Happy spring!

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  5. I also love Pussy Willows, I just wish we had a moist, sunny spot for it. It's also an important host plant for many butterfly species.

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    1. That is too bad, as they do like a lot of water. I wondered for all the trees after such a bad drought last year, but the Pussy Willows seem to be coming back fine, at least.

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  6. Enjoyed this well-written post as it covered everything I would have wondered about pussy willows. Can't grow them down here.

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    1. Sadly too hot for them there. There are sure some southern plants I miss growing up here, though!

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  7. My mom always brought pussy willows in the house in the spring. I loved their fur!

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    1. I remember seeing them in spring as a kid, so it's so nice to have them here. How can a kid resist soft little furry catkins!

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