A friend once told me that when he first moved to Maine years ago, to try homesteading in the boonies of Montville, his 80-year old neighbor told him that every winter she counted down the days till February 10. Why that date, he wondered. Because, she told him, that's when we start to feel the heat of the sun again here in Maine.
Now that we're several weeks on the other side of February 10, we're not only starting to feel the heat of the sun again—other harbingers of spring are beginning to make themselves known. Some are subtle: leaf buds of maples and poplars beginning to swell.
Others are more obvious: the odor of skunks that have emerged from their winter dens to mate, the loudly whistled love songs of cardinals, and constellations of pussy willows spangling our swamps.
Who remembers that song we learned in kindergarten that begins: "I know a little pussy, her coat is silver-gray. She lives down in the meadow, not very far away...."?
That silly childhood song about the pussy willow comes back into my head every year around this time, when I notice my first catkins of the season.
And I usually first notice them in the same place each year: out the window of the fitness room of the YMCA in Rockport, looking toward the transfer station. A thicket of willows, alders, and other bushes fill the patchy swale between the Y and what most locals still refer to as the dump. I recently spotted my first fluffy white catkins out that window as I walked around the track, and the sight put a real spring in my step (pun fully intended).
The fuzzy spring catkins we all know and love here in late winter Maine are, generally speaking, the undeveloped, prepubescent flowers of the pussy willow (Salix discolor). This shrub is just one of the almost 60 native or introduced willow species or varieties found in Maine, many of which can be challenging to tell apart. Other willows produce similar-looking fuzzy young catkins that we also, confusingly, call "pussy willows." But in northern New England in February, the actual pussy willow is usually the species producing those familiar catkins.
Willow plants are either male or female. Only males produce the characteristic furry catkins; we got the gender all wrong in that old song. During this still-cold and often snowy time of year, the catkin's soft gray "fur" keeps warm the pollen-producing parts of the flower. On a sunny day, the fur can actually trap and retain heat from the sunlight.
When flowers eventually bloom, the result isn't something we would necessarily recognize as a flower. In fact, when pussy willows flower in the vase and their short yellow-green filaments emerge from their protecting fluff, we usually toss them out for having "gone by."
But while the flower lacks flashy petals or showy colors, it gets the job done to attract pollinators and perpetuate the species.
Although it appears a little later than the furry male, the female catkin also emerges before willow branches leaf out. And like the male catkin, it sports an unusual look for a flower. With its cascade of longer, yellow-tipped filaments sprouting from one thick stem, it has been aptly compared to a hairy caterpillar. Once this funky female flower has been pollinated, its seeds will develop to disperse in mid-spring, carried by wind-borne "willow fluff."
Humans longing for spring aren't the only ones to find the emergence of pussy willows in late winter an exciting event. As one of the very first flowers—and apparently a fragrant one at the insect level—the pussy willow is a big draw for flies and bees desperate for nectar or pollen. This works to the willow's reproductive advantage, as there is minimal competition this time of year for the attention of these early pollinators.
This attraction of insects, in turn, helps out hungry birds, both early-arriving migrants and resident birds that have exhausted other local food sources. So a flowering willow shrub can be a busy and important food hub during a time of scarcity and chilly weather.
Later in spring, when its catkins are past their prime and its leaves have unfurled, the pussy willow's importance to insects is no less diminished. Willows are one of the primary host plants for caterpillars. The many butterflies and moths whose larvae feed on willow leaves include the Mourning Cloak, usually the first butterfly we see each spring after its emergence from hibernation, as well as the Viceroy and the striking Polyphemus Moth.
The willow's multiple trunks and penchant for growing in wet, buggy areas also make it an attractive home for nesting birds, offering both cover and nearby food. The aptly named Willow Flycatcher, for instance, can often be found nesting in willow thickets, as can the caterpillar-loving Black-billed Cuckoo.
Many people are developing practices more mindful of our increasingly scarce pollinating insects, particularly during early spring when most flowers have yet to bloom. Allowing your lawn to fill with dandelions rather than mowing them right away, for example, preserves an abundant early source of nectar to bees. If clipping boughs of pussy willows to bring inside is one of your early spring traditions, remember to leave some on the bush to bloom for the insects. And instead of tossing them when they fully flower, if you keep them in water until the leaves emerge, the rooted cuttings can then be easily transplanted into soil—an optimal method of recycling that everyone—birds, bees, and humans alike—will appreciate each spring.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.