My garden stirs in late winter. I bundle up and venture out to witness the first faint pulses of change, looking for proof that spring is on the horizon. I quickly find the goods.
The air smells different now, no longer tinged with snow but with an earthiness brought forth from the tentative thaw. Hellebore flowers, from under their winter-battered leathery leaves, are dragging their fresh ruffled chartreuse blooms from the cold soil like tousle-headed teenagers trying to wake. Birds dart in and out of the viburnum hedge, noisily staking out their nesting territory. I round the corner and gasp, delighted as spring smacks me full force. Why am I surprised? It happens every year.
In all this hesitant spring business—the freezing and the thawing, the occasional teasingly bright warm day or half day—there it is: the black pussy willow, trumpeting spring and not pussy-footing around about it in the least. I stand marveling at its silhouette against the gray sky, a huge ugly hulking pile of sticks that are now dotted with inky tufts along their lengths. How long has it been in full bloom? It never says. But it might wonder why it took me so long to notice.
I admire these intrepid winter bloomers—the hellebore, the witchhazel, the pussy willow. What they lack in floral glitz they make up for in grit. Their sap stirs long before our sights are on spring and their curious flowers flex from within icy buds. These early risers seem impatient to get the business of flowering and pollination out of the way and, in the process, offer up life-saving nectar and pollen to woozy bees and other insects emerging on those first warm days.
I bought the black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) as a mere twig in a four-inch pot decades ago from a long-defunct nursery. I remember seizing on it as a great prize, something unique. I planted the tiny stick in what seemed a huge area at the back corner of the garage where it would have room to grow and receive runoff from the downspout, since willows love water. I fretted when my husband ran over it with the lawn mower, twice. It must have enjoyed the abuse because it never looked back from that point, growing wider by the year. Its twiggy bulk now stretches above the roof gutters, trashing them with its slender leaves. My husband complains when he mows under it and the branches knock his hat off. Who’s getting the last laugh now?
For much of the year the black pussy willow is an unremarkable plant, save for its size. But as winter drags on and spring seems distant, I am always astonished when the glistening black catkins emerge amidst the unsettled throes of late winter. I clip a few of the red-tipped stems to bring inside so I can closely watch the black fuzzy flowers open further. Some are capped with shiny maroon bud scales that eventually litter the table, along with yellow pollen that dusts the tips of the shaggy flowers. Soon I will sweep up the mess and drop the spent twigs into the compost pile as the daffodils finally dare to bloom.