Spring is here because the willows are flowering. What we call “pussy willows” are catkins which are cylindrical clusters of flowers that have many soft hairs in place of petals. Willows are unisexual (or dioecious) meaning they have male and female catkins on separate plants.
When the male catkins open completely each individual flower will have large stamens bearing anthers that dangle in the wind. At maturity each anther will release copious amounts of small, lightweight pollen grains that are easily dispersed by wind currents.
A female flower consists of an ovary upon which sits a long style bearing feathery stigmas at its tip. The stigmas project out from between the hairs so they can ‘catch’ some of the pollen grains flying by. The lack of petals, protruding stamens and large feathery stigmas, and copious pollen are all perfect adaptations to ensure wind pollination is successful.
So why do willow flowers also produce lots of nectar? Nectar is usually present to attract bees and other insects as pollinators. Sometimes, in a cool spring, hummingbirds can also be seen taking nectar from pussy willows.
It is thought that willows, by producing nectar, are hedging their bets to make sure that either wind or animal (insect or bird) pollination is successful. Willows are also thought to be either evolving towards insect pollination and away from wind pollination or vice versa.
Willows are also important plants for moose as winter browse and for humans as a source of pain killer. Scrape the bark of a willow twig and you will find a layer of green tissue underneath. This green tissue can be rolled into a ball and placed on a tooth to alleviate toothache or swallowed as a painkiller. Mind you, it is very bitter as it contains salicylic acid (from the Latin genus name Salix for willow). Acetylsalicylic acid is the active ingredient in aspirin.
So, willows are pretty handy to know about and to be able to identify when out in the bush and you left the painkillers at home. Look for twigs with alternate buds. The buds only have one bud scale.
If you don’t need a painkiller, the twigs make good marshmallow roasting tools.