The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 28, 2008


Pussy Willow

Name. The native Pussy Willow has the botanical name Salix discolor. All the willow species, of

These Pussy Willows are a welcome sign of spring at the Cranberry Bog. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)
The “pussies” pop open and flower in the early spring. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

which more than 65 are native to North America, are in the genus Salix. The name comes from a combination of sal meaning near and lis meaning water. The term discolor means not of the same color or having two different colors and in this particular case it refers to the different colors on the leaves where the upper surface is blue-green and the lower surface is very pale, almost white.

When and where found. There is a typical multi-trunked Pussy Willow growing in that wild area off the edge of the driveway in to the Town Hall. On March 24 its buds were still closed and looking like typical Pussy Willows. You are most likely to see willows of any kind in a damp or wet habitat. They are particularly happy along the edges of ponds and streams. There are a small number at the Cranberry Bog but given the amount of wetlands in Carlisle, I’m surprised we don’t see them all over the place.

Distinguishing characteristics. Just about everyone is familiar with the soft silvery furry buds of the Pussy Willow. Other trees, like some poplars and some magnolias, also have furry buds, but the willow is distinctive in having only a single scale covering the bud. This is a feature that can be used to identify a willow at any time of year. The leaves of the Pussy Willow are not long and slender like those of a native Black Willow or a weeping willow. They are more elliptical, about two to four inches long, and can vary a lot even on the same plant. They appear after the flowers

Flowers, seeds and propagation. The “pussies” of the Pussy Willows develop into fl owers early in the spring or even in the late winter. Because they bloom before most other plants, they are an early source of pollen and nectar for the spring broods of honeybees. The male fl ower, which bears the stamens, looks like a little bottlebrush about an inch long. Like all willows, they are dioecious, meaning that male and female fl owers are on different plants. Willow seeds have a very short period of viability. If they don’t fi nd a suitable moist spot within just a few hours of dispersal, they dry up and die. On the other hand, if they do land in a moist place, they germinate almost immediately. Willows are easily propagated from cuttings. They are sometimes planted along streams and rivers to help hold the banks and prevent erosion.

Medicinal use. Willows and their close relatives, the poplars, contain a substance called salicin in their bark. Salicin is converted in the human body to salicylic acid which is a compound related to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). Long before the chemists at Bayer synthesized aspirin, native Americans were extracting salicin from willow bark and using it to relieve pain and reduce fever.

Sources: Shrub Identification Book, George W. D. Symonds; Textbook of Dendrology, William M. Harlow and Ellwood S. Harrar; website for the Virginia Tech Department of Forestry at


© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito