The pussy willow flower is unquestionably one of the most uncommon looking blooms around. These flowers – which are most often referred to as “catkins” because of their soft, bristly appearance, which is similar to that of a cat’s tail – blossom from trees of the genus salix, and are native to the wetlands of southern portions of the United States, Europe, Asia and Canada. The actual flowers can blossom from either male or female plants. The male plants are the most commonly seen, and are considered the flashier of the two, as they are staminate flowers and tend to sprout noticeable buds. The female plants, on the other hand, develop more modest, less noticeable pistils.
The pussy willow flower is steeped in many cultural traditions. These blossoms are commonly used in Eastern Europe as decorations for religious occasions, such as Palm Sunday. The tradition of carrying pussy willow flowers instead of palm leaves has carried over into the United States. Another Eastern European tradition that has been brought over into America is Dyngus Day, or Easter Monday. On Dyngus Day, the revelers will flirt with each other by gently tapping one another on the legs with pussy willow branches. The cultural value of the pussy willow flower also extends to entertainment and literature. References to this plant are made in Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Spider Man, and Jethro Tull’s song entitled “Pussy Willow.” The pussy willow flower also has its place in folklore. One Polish legend describes how the pussy willow got its name. In this story a willow tree heard a poor mother cat crying as her kittens were drowning in a river. The tree took pity on her and swept its branches down into the water and rescued the kittens, who fiercely clung to the tree. Ever since then, whenever spring rolls around, small billowy blossoms sprout from the spots where the kittens held on.
Although many willows are associated with sadness, the pussy willow flower has many positive connotations. For instance, these flowers are thought to symbolize good will and motherhood. They are also thought to represent protection for the home, and are frequently given as gifts to new homeowners. Although these blossoms can be given fresh – and are sometimes added to spring-themed flower arrangements – they are best presented dry, where their unique beauty can be kept in the home indefinitely.