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Pussy Willow - the harbinger of spring in real life, myth and tradition

by Geraldine Dinkins

Easter and Spring Pop-Up sale of local Pussy Willow bunches at 3oak handcrafted in Brevard, 2 to 6-foot bundles for $15 - $35 while supplies last

The Pussy Willow or “Salix Discolor” to use its proper botanical genus, is easily overlooked for its lack of showy colors, petals and fragrance, nevertheless it has its briefest of moment in the pale spring light just as winter recedes when it distinguishes itself as the earliest flower of spring, announcing the seasonal return of natural bounties with tiny fur-covered buds along its willow-long, sculptural stems. Native to Asia, North America and Europe, the kitten-paw shaped buds insulate the soft pollen stems burrowed beneath from the last freezes of winter before exposing them to the winds as “catkins” (Dutch for “katteken” or kitten tails) to find a nearby female willow. Only male Pussy Willows erupt in the signature silky fuzzy puffs of the many types of Pussy Willows that love bottomland, bogs and moist woodlands - the latter in ample supply in Transylvania County, where Pussy Willows have been part of local farmers’ senses for the seasons for as long as they can remember.

“We would get off the bus, and my grandpa would be in the willows, and I’d go ‘oh no not the willows,’” says Joshua Goins, whose family has owned the McCall Farm in Balsam Grove for generations. All family members would be part of the highly seasonal cottage industry surrounding their willow grove and its tiny window for harvest and demand. “There is only about three weeks to cut and sell them,” says Goins. The McCall Farm is home to more than a dozen different varieties from the distinctive stems of the corkscrew willow to the French Pink, Goat Willow and the smooth, sleek Silver Willow, Each year, as cold temperatures waned, Goins’ late grandfather, Joseph McCall, would start wandering “in the willows”, which meant it was time to brave the sometimes still frigid weather and get out and help cut branches. Goins’ grandma, Linda McCall, and the other women of the family would arrange them into beautiful arrangements and weave them into glorious wreaths to sell at markets in neighboring Highlands and Cashiers.

“Being a kid trying to sell those … it always just felt to me like saying a bad word,” remembers Goins with an easy laugh. A partner and featured artisan in 3oak Handcrafted, a furniture and home goods company, based in Brevard. Goins now thinks his youthful discomfort was mostly his problem, because the arrangements were eye-catching and sold without much of a correctly-worded sales spiel. “I could never get used to saying the full name, but they were actually a quite lucrative business for our family for a while.”

Goins, who seeks to express his artistry, through carving and sculpture of wood, selects and mills most of the raw materials that are eventually reborn as classically designed furniture in collaboration with 3oak partners Mike Burns and Scott Sullivan. Left to their own growing cycle for years, Goins says his family has held on to the willow field to memorialize his grandfather and “it tickles my grandma to no end that people once again may want to buy them.”

As an excellent soil stabilizers, Pussy Willows, are hearty and can easily be propagated from cut stems, which Goins explains, are perfectly preserved in a time-warp. If you keep them in water the catkins will erupt and soon bright green leaves will unfurl, at which time the branches can be planted outdoors. If dried, they last for years and years. Goins, grandma would sometimes spray lacquer on them to keep them in perfect shape through the rest of the year.

“I’ll pick them just to have around my own house,” says Goins, who doesn’t preserve them, because they can also easily be composted. Growing with extensive root systems, means that he spends time much beyond his childhood sometime after early spring trimming the willow field back to keep the plants healthy and ready to once again announce spring in 11 or so months’ time.

Almost always described as resembling tiny cat paws, the buds gave the Pussy Willow its name a long time ago when Polish legend has it, a mother cat cried out for help near a creek as her kittens were drowning in the stream. Long branches of willows dipped into the water for the kittens to cling on and be rescued and henceforth the willow was known as a plant of hope and safety. Polish and Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as most of European Catholics, allow for the Pussy Willow to take the place of palm branches, which do not grow in Northern Europe, and prominently feature them in Easter celebrations, table settings and church decor. Some eastern European traditions call for Pussy Willow stems to be blessed in church and then be placed in households’ “icon corners” for continued blessings throughout the year. The Bible first mentions willows in Psalms 137 - “We hangeth our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof” - and refers to willows as the symbol for hope, a sense of belonging, source of perpetual nourishment.

In the Middle East, Iran in particular, Pussy Willows are prized as decorations on the “Haft-Seen” during the New Year’s celebrations of “Nowuz,” which coincides with the first day of spring. In Asia, Pussy Willow branches symbolize prosperity and can often be found during Chinese New Year’s celebration, decorated with ornaments of gold and red to guarantee prosperity and happiness to its bearers.

Native Americans, have used the bark of the willow - which contains Salicin, a compound of Aspirin - both in medicine and rituals. Willow bark tea and concoctions are used to treat fevers and toothaches, rheumatism, abscesses and ulcers. Chewed up willow leaves put on bee stings will prevent swelling. Alaskan gold explorers chewed willow bark to treat sores and cure for “too much drink” and supplemented their meager diet with willow greens, both raw and cooked.

As such a helpful and otherwise revered plant throughout the ages, the Pussy Willow, unsurprisingly, is also the subject in 20th Century and current culture, including poetry, children’s literature, 80s classic rock and even a recently trendy paint color.

Jean Warren, an author and poet of early childhood learning books and songs, penned a popular childhood finger-play sing-along in the 1990s:

 

“I know a little pussy

her coat is silver gray

She lives down in the meadow

Not very far away.

 

Tough she is a pussy

She’ll never be a cat.

She is a pussy willow.

Now what do you think of that!”

 

Margaret Brown Wise, best known as the author of “Goodnight Moon” and often referred to as the “laureate of the nursery,” wrote “Pussy Willow” in 1951 as a Little Golden Storybook, about a little kitten chasing spring through the year and naming himself Pussy Willow when he finally finds it. The book continues to regale young readers and is a popular gift given at Easter to this day.

Created and named in 2018 as part of the Rugh Collection, Sherwin Williams’ SH7643 Pussy Willow is lauded for being a “mindful” gray, which has made it a perennial favorite for resale of homes as it coordinates well with neutrals and bright colors. For a bit more flash and deeper meaning, Pussy Willow is also the name of a song featured on the B-side of the British Rock group Jethro Tull’s 1981 “Broadsword and Beast” album. Athmospheric and relatively contemplative for the classic rock group’s usual style, the song never broke away as a hit single, and the album received only mixed reviews, nevertheless, maybe it is time for a comeback for this song and Pussy Willows in homes in Transylvania County and around the world.

 

“Pussy Willow down fur-lined avenue

Brushing the sleep from her young woman eyes.

Runs for the train. Hear her typewriter humming, 

cutting dreams down to size again.”


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