Notes from the Field - Willows

Below is an article from our Spring, 2003 newsletter. This was the first newsletter now ED, Theresa Kerchner, published as a KLT staff member.  It's still relevant this Spring! 

"Go and measure to what length the silvery willow catkins have crept out beyond their scales, ifyou would know what time o' the year it is by Nature's clock. "

-The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Volume Xll, March 2, 1859

With winter yielding, the plants in our local fields and woods will soon be showing subtle signs that the days are growing longer and warmer. One of the earliest and most welcome botanical harbingers of spring is the appearance of silvery catkins on the branches of pussy willows (Salix discolor). Finding these catkins on a spring walk can be the starting point for learning more about this species and many others in the willow or Salicaceae family.

The willow family has many tree and shrub species - world-wide there are 386 species .in two major genera, Salix (willows) and Populus (aspens). Pussy willows are one of the twenty-six species of willows found in Maine and are a common native shrub or small tree that is usually found in open areas in moist to wet ground.

Plants in the willow genus share a number of similar characteristics. The leaves are almost always alternate and have small associated stipules or leaf-like appendages at the base of the leaf. The buds of all willows have only a single cap-like scale that is prominent as the catkins open. All of the species have very small female flowers in catkins that can be pollinated by both wind and insects.

The silvery catkins that appear in March in Maine are the male or staminate flowers and since they are formed before the leaves appear they are quite easy to see in the field. The female catkins where the fruit will eventually develop are almost always borne on separate trees from the male catkins.

In addition to field guides, Henry David Thoreau's journals are filled with entries about various willow species. He notes the dates that pussy willow catkins begin to show beyond their scales, the diameter and height of black willows (Salix nigra), our largest New England native willow, and the presence of the rare alpine species, bearberry willow (Salix uva-ursi) on his July 8, 1858, hike to the summit of Mount Washington.

So, while you are out and about on KLT land or in your own backyard and fields, take advantage of those wonderful moments to learn a little botany!