Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Pussy willow

Article in The Sacred Heart Review, ‘for God and Country’, Boston, Massachusetts, 15 (15): 12, April 1896.

How the willows became to be called pussy willows

There was once a city in Asia which was built so long ago that the names of the city and of its people has been forgotten and everything else about it except one little story.

The people were very fond of cats and there were great numbers of them all about the city.  These people believed that cats were sacred animals, fed them well, treated them kindly, and when they died made little dummy cats out of them.

When the city was very old there came a great flood which covered the earth.

Cats do not like water, and it came 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 legs grew tired trying to run through the deep mud, and so when they came to a row of tall willow [Salix sp.] trees beside the river, they climbed up and rested themselves in the forks made by the branches next to the tree trunks.

It was comical to see the tall slender trees full of kittens, some white, some yellow and  most of them very cunning gray Maltese kits like balls of fur or little grey 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 tree tops were left above the surface.  As the winds drove the waves hither and thither they struck 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.

So they stayed day after day till it stopped raining and the sun shone again. At last the water dried away until 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 and the sunshine reached the kittens underneath and one could see through the cracks bits of yellow, white and gray fur.  Then 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.

If you look at the willow trees and bushes along 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 gray, white and yellow ‘pusses’ or ‘pussy-willows’ all along the stems with their fur as smooth and as soft as the prettiest kitten you ever saw.  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.

Images:  main, the tree most usually known as pussy willow in Britain, goat willow, Salix caprea, male catkins, Wandle Park, Colliers Wood, London Borough of Merton; inset, female flowers, Headley Heath Approach, Box Hill, Surrey, both March 2021.