Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
Amongst the species that pussy willow refers to are goat willow and grey willow. I’ve always wondered how goat willow got its name, and have finally remembered to look it up: it is thought to derive from the first known illustration of the species in 1546, where it is shown being browsed by a goat. It was also lovely to read that many countries and traditions include it in their spring celebrations: the Chinese New Year, Persian New Year on the spring equinox, and, in Europe, Palm Sunday.
The name pussy willow seems odd to me: I wouldn’t particularly associate their furriness, colour or shape with cats. But perhaps this is because I’m not generally keen on cats. I’d rather call them furry willows, or rabbit tails, or any number of other things… They are also lovely when they are in flower, with a bright yellow afro to add to their silver fur.
There is something ridiculously endearing about furry plants, such as new beech leaves in spring or Stachys byzantina, often called lamb’s ears. I call them rabbits’ ears, mainly because I stroke the leaves in the same way I stroke the ears of my rabbits. Needless to say, I also can’t walk past a pussy willow without stroking it.