Winter this year has been colder and longer than average. We still have a fair bit of snow here in St. Joseph, though there is less to the east and west of us. Nevertheless, a quick walk through the wetlands Friday (March 17) and this Monday (March 19) show that things are happening.
One of the first signs of spring among plant life around here is that of the American Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). It is native to North America and is found in the wetlands of Minnesota and throughout the eastern half of the continent. There is also the Western Pussy Willow which, as the name suggests, dwells to the west of us. The ones on our property are just beginning to bud.
This grayish fur resembles a cat or kitten, and so the bud is called a "catkin." This flower bud will eventually flower and pollinate the females.
Though not a "stand out" plant in the landscape, Pussy Willows are very important in terms of their medicinal value. Their active ingredient is salicin, named after the Latin for willow, Salix. The making of the powder, Salix, eventually led to the manufacture of acetyl salicylic acid, better known as aspirin. It stands to reason that the common, and often overlooked, Pussy Willow was the source of this most common, and perhaps overlooked, of medicines--aspirin!
Another sign of spring is the bud of the Quaking Aspen, the first of the larger trees to come out of dormancy in our parts.
The Quaking Aspen also produce catkins, which flower before its leaves bud. We see this on other plants in the Populus family (which is a subset of the genus willow), such as poplars, birch, and cottonwood. They are funny things to see in spring. I think of them as garland on a Christmas tree, drooping from the trees for my amusement.
The only thing is that it's not Christmas and they don't come from Christmas trees. And, while we're at it, they're also not for my amusement. These catkins form the staminate of the male aspen and, like the Pussy Willow, pollinate the females in spring.
It's only the middle of March and I'm already overwhelmed by all that's going on in nature around here!