Blooming Winter Willows

February 13, 2024

Today, I was out looking for signs of spring. Yes, it’s early, but there are signals that the seasons are changing. The days are getting longer, there is rain and warmth, and early flowers are beginning to bloom. There are not too many wildflowers on the Willits Bypass Mitigation Lands, but trees and shrubs, such as the alders and willows, are beginning to bloom. It was the pussy-willows that got my attention today, one of the earliest signs of spring. The soft grey color and texture of these are a delightful February treasure.

Willows are plants that prefer to live near or in the water. They are deciduous, so they lose their leaves in the winter, and this is the time of year when they begin to flower. A pussy willow is called a catkin, and it is defined as a scaly spike of flowers of one sex only. Willows have flowers of each sex on separate plants, so there are male and female willow plants. The scientific term for this is dioecious, which means two houses.

The catkins that show up the earliest are the male flowers. The females show up a little later when the day length and temperatures are more conducive for growth. The soft silvery hairs insulate the catkin by trapping the heat from the sun. This helps the pollen and fruit to mature. I did not find any female flowers this week, which are spiky and green.

Willows are not wind-pollinated like their close relatives, the cottonwoods and aspens. Insects pollinate them because they are attracted to the strongly scented nectar, of which there is no short supply. Bees, flies, other insects, and hummingbirds pollinate them, using the pollen to help survive the winter. Flowering early before the end of winter is an important ecological function that willows share with manzanita in our area. Both are prime nectar sources for migrant birds and the insects that awaken early before spring arrives.

On the Willits Bypass Mitigation Project, willows are used extensively in erosion control and revegetation projects. Willows are easily rooted from cuttings and are native to the riparian corridors we are working to restore. These plants have done very well and there are now many locations where willow thickets are helping to create wildlife habitat and stabilize creek banks.

It is not hard to find a willow tree if you live near a creek, lake, or pond. Look for catkins or pussy-willows and observe whether the tree is a male or female. Listen for the buzz of bees and other pollinators.