Willows are one of the very first native plants to flower in the spring. The distinctive and much-loved pussy willow (Salix discolor) is just about the first of the pack, closely followed by, well, by, er, other willows. Such as the one pictured above (Salix somethingorother).
Questions about willow taxonomy always remind me of the late Henry Kock, Director of the Guelph Arboretum and an eco-activist who touched so many lives. In his role at the Guelph Arboretum, he gave workshops on identifying native willows. I attended a workshop about ten years ago, and after a morning with Henry’s own identifying key in the classroom and an afternoon on the grounds of the Arboretum, putting new knowledge to the field test, I felt I really knew my willows. Alas, my new knowledge of Salixes proved ephemeral.
There are certain bits of plant identification lore that just do not stay put in the file cabinets of my brain. It’s as if they are in a card catalogue in the library at Hogworts and poltergeists are mixing them up. Identifying characteristics of willows are one set and identifying characteristics of wood ferns (Dryopteris spp.) are the other. Do not go into the woods without a cheat sheet – I need to start living by this rule.
Whatever the species, the early flowers of our native willows are important food sources for hungry early-flying bees and flies and other pollinators.