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10 Neat Things: Pussy Willows

1. Dyngus Day.

Pussy willows were a player on Easter Monday or Wet Monday, a Polish celebration also known in the United States as Dyngus Day. Boys would sneak into the houses of the girls they admired and throw water on them, often while they were still asleep (or pretending to be) then spank them with pussy willows. Often, they threw the girl into a nearby stream or other body of water. Supposedly, the girls had the chance to reciprocate the next day, but this seems to be a much lower key event.

2. The name thing.

Salix discolor is the North American species of pussy willow. In northern Europe, the variety is Salix cinerea, the grey willow, or Salix caprea, the goat willow, which also extends to Asia.

3. Tender-hearted willow.

A Polish legend says that pussy willows got their names through an act of mercy. One day some tiny kittens were chasing butterflies on the banks of a river. They fell in. Their frantic mother cried pitifully because she didn’t know how to save them. The riverbank willows heard her and came to the rescue. Ever since, the willow branches sprout the furry buds where the kittens once placed their paws.

4. Beethoven died for it.

Willow bark contains a potent drug called salicin, an analgesic related to today’s aspirin. Ludwig von Beethoven is said to have ingested large amounts of salicin before he died. It is believed that it shut down his kidneys.

5. Rods of life.

Pussy willows were used by the Roman goddess, Libra, to initiate women into motherhood through ritual flogging. This belief in the powers of regeneration may stem from the fact that a willow stick, plunged into fertile ground, will often sprout and grow.

6. Lady willow.

Willows are associated with the moon, water and all that is feminine. It is the tree of dreaming, of intuition, deep emotion and enchantment.

7. Eager willow.

Willows are always eager. Their very name, Salix, from the Latin salire, is rooted in the term to spring forth, to sally, to emerge with a sudden burst of emotion. Pussy willow is the first plant to flower in spring, an advantage because it is dioecious, meaning that there are male trees and female trees that need the help of pollinators to mate. The ever-ready male flowers first, and when his pollen appears it means life for early pollinators.

8. Plain Jane wife.

The female pussy willow is a rather plain thing with spiny green flowers that grow fat before they develop seeds. The seeds mature in June when the female carpels burst, releasing tiny white parachutes that get caught on the wind and dance toward their destiny.

9. I want pussy willows.

If you cannot find these tender little shrubs at your local nursery, try planting a couple of sticks from a bouquet. You can root them in water – it takes a few weeks – and then transplant in a nice boggy, sunny area. Salix discolor grows to 30 feet and 8 feet wide, so give it lots of room to grow and spread its roots. It will attract early butterflies and birds, and in pussy willow season you can feel free to cut as many as you like. It thrives under heavy pruning.

10. Aaaachoo!

Charming as they are in a flower arrangement, you may want to reconsider displaying pussy willows if anyone in your home is prone to allergies. As soon as the silky buds start to produce pollen the sneezes will come fast and furious.

– Dorothy Dobbie Copyright©
Pegasus Publications Inc.

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