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The Willows – Pussy Willows (Salix discolor)

Here is our video on the Pussywillow https://youtu.be/EDxDXm4SoDE

The Willow species is one of the most important plant species for North America. When I state one of the most important plant species, I am talking in terms of food values for entire ecosystems. Insects comprise the base of the food pyramid for all our land ecosystems and without insects, creatures such as birds, would starve and whole ecosystems would collapse. In fact, willows are only second to the oaks for number of insects calling the willow its host plant.

So let’s follow this through. I am not talking about insect infestations but rather long evolved plant-insect relationships. A huge array of insects use the leaves for meals or for host plants. Some Lepidoptera using the Willow species as its host plant are Mourning Cloaks, Viceroys, Hairstreaks, Sphinx moths, Comma moths, Red spotted purple, Eastern tiger swallowtail, and Compton’s tortoiseshell. Of course, this creates caterpillars which is the most highly prized high protein food for birds. Without insects we destroy the base of the food chain and birds starve. In fact, overall bird populations have declined by over 50%.

The Pussywillow furthers the food value of the Willow species by means of its early reproductive cycle. It is the earliest of all the Willows to bloom. This early bloom in March to April is crucial for overwintering pollinators. They awaken from hibernation desperate for food and Pussywillow offers high quality protein in the form of pollen. In fact, pollination experts rate Pussywillow as, ‘ special value ‘ to native bees. For birds its a win-win combination. They feast on the pollinators drawn to the flowers and to the caterpillars feasting on its leaves.

But it doesn’t end there. I found out that the willow buds are eaten by ruffed grouse and tree squirrels. The fallen leaves are eaten by wood and snapping turtles. The bark is eaten by muskrats, beaver and rabbits. The beaver also use the willow wood for dam and lodge construction. Deer love to munch on its leaves and branches. And lastly, the yellow and warbling vireos use it for nesting.

Pussywillow

Pretty impressive, right? Not done yet. The Willow has tremendous rehabilitation value. This water loving species has the ability to grow rapidly and produce extensive root systems that bind the soil and decrease soil erosion. It also has the ability to improve water quality by filtering and removing nutrients and sediments especially associated with agricultural operations.

To tie it all up in a bow, the Pussywillows are gorgeous to look at. The origins of its name comes from their flower. This is a dioecious species, where male and female are on separate trees. The male produces those adorable pearl gray catkins that resembles the pads on a cat’s paw. I can never just walk by a Pussywillow in bloom without touching their silken catkins.

Male Pussywillow flower

So maybe the Willows should be more on our planting radar.

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