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How the Pussy Willow got its name

6 min read

Spring gets nearer, and a symbol of the season is the Pussy Willow. Salix discolor is its botanical name, and its fuzzy buds that emerge in spring are excellent for floral arrangements or stunning in a bunch by themselves.
You can leave a bunch of pussy willow branches in water and they will form roots. You can then transplant these cuttings into your garden, they will grow into a new shrubs and you can take cuttings off them for many more years.
But why is it that the pussy willow is a symbol of spring? And why its name is “pussy willow”?
There are many legends about the tree and I thought I would share a few of these.

Somewhere there was once a great city which was built so long ago that even the name of the city and of its people has been forgotten. It seems that everything about it is wiped from history except this ancient tale.
Locals liked cats very much, and there were great numbers of them all about. They believed that cats were sacred animals, fed them well, treated them kindly, and when they died made little dummy cats out of them.
Many, many years ago, when the city was very old, there came a great flood which covered the earth. Cats do not like water, and when it began to rain so hard the cats and kittens were very unhappy.
When the ground grew wet and muddy they tried to find trees into which they could climb to keep dry. The old cats remembered that there was a great forest of big trees on some mountains a long way off, and they set out for it on the run.
The kittens started too, but they could not run so fast or so far and their little paws grew tired trying to run through the mud. So, when they came to a row of tall willow trees beside the river, they climbed up and rested themselves in the forks made by the branches next to the tree trunks.
It was strange to see the tall slender trees full of kittens, some white, some brown, but most of them very cunning gray Maltese kits like balls of fur or little gray squirrels.
Soon each kitten rolled itself into a ball with its head thrust snugly between its paws so as not to feel the rain and the cold, and went to sleep.
It rained harder and harder and the water rose higher and higher, until the earth was covered with water and only the treetops were left above the surface. As the wind drove the waves struck on the tree trunks and splashed mud over the little kittens until there was a thick coating of sticky mud on them. So they could not move, and one could see nothing but little brown balls along the branches.
The kittens stayed sleeping that way, day after day till it stopped raining and the sun shone again. At last the water dried away and the earth appeared, but the kittens still slept, for the shell of mud over them was so thick they did not know the rain had stopped.
But the sun shone warm upon them and dried the mud, until, as it dried, it cracked open.
The sunshine reached the little kittens underneath and one could see through the cracks small bits of yellow, white and and gray fur. When the little cats woke up, put their heads through the cracks and then pushed clear out. The shells of mud fell down to the ground, and it was like the blossoming of a flower, for all along the branches, where just before were the dull brown balls of mud, shone the soft, smooth, furry balls of gray and yellow and white.
Not by chance, If you look at the willow trees and bushes beside the brooks in the month of March, you will find the little brown balls or buds all along the stems. If you watch them as the sun shines on them day by day, you will see the brown shells crack and you can see the gray, yellow and white fur underneath, till at last the brown shells will fall to the ground.
Then you will see the dainty grey, white and yellow “pusses” or ” pussy-willows” all along the stems with their fur as smooth and as soft as the cutiest kitten you ever saw. And, a few days later you will see the strings of willow seeds hang down like little kittens’ fluffy tails.
And so we call the willows ” pussy-willows ” and call the string of seeds “catkins,” in memory of the little kittens of the old forgotten city and the way they lived safely through the days of the flood.

However, the most popular version of the story come from Poland. According to an old legend, many springtimes ago a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river in which her kittens were drowning. The willows at the river’s edge longed to help her, so they swept their long graceful branches into the waters to rescue the tiny kittens who had fallen into the river while chasing butterflies. The kittens gripped on tightly to their branches and were safely brought to shore. Each springtime since, goes the legend, the willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung.

According to another version a farmer, annoyed that his barn cat had just given birth to a litter of kittens, decided that his farm had enough mouths to feed.
Thus he put the newborn babies in a feed sack, went down to the riverbank and threw the kittens in the water to be rid of them.
In the turbulence of the fast moving river, the tie on the sack became loosened which set the kittens adrift. On the riverbank witnessing this horrible sight, the distressed mother cat wept loud and pitifully.
A cluster of willow bushes, along the riverbank downstream, heard her cries and in sympathy held out their branches like mooring lines.
This enabled the desperately floundering kittens to grab hold as they drifted by.
In mythology, when the life we are assigned on earth is doomed but because the spirit is eternal, myth dictates that the spirit can live on but must be in another earthly form.
Because the kittens were destined to die, but their spirits were saved, they then became part of the willows which had saved them.
Ever since then, in Spring, the willow-without-a-flower decks itself out in gentle velvet buds that feel to the fingers like the silky coat of a kitten. These buds are known today as catkins and remarkably, in every country, these soft willow trees are named after cats…

However, in the latest version I found there are no kittens.
A Native American legend states that there was once a rabbit that climbed to the top of a Willow tree by climbing atop the winters deep snow. After his climb he was so tired that he settled in the top crotch of the tree and slept the winter away. In the spring when things thawed he woke up and as he jumped from the tree bits of his fuzzy tail clung to the buds on his descent. From that day on Willow buds feature a tiny bit of fur in honor of one of springs busiest creatures, the rabbit.
In any case, whatever the legend, and whatever your favorite version, the fuzzy buds of the pussy willow have become a symbol of spring throughout the world, as a symbol of warmer times coming and of life beginning anew.

Images from web – Google Research