Monthly Archives: February 2013

Black Pussy Willow

Let’s play word association.  I’ll give you three things and tell me what you think:  robins banging their beaks in the ground in search of worms, shamrock shakes and the flowers of Black Pussy Willow.  How many of you immediately thought of spring?  Since I’m not an ornithologist or epicurean, I’ll talk about the Black Pussy Willow, Salix melanostachys.  Salix is the botanical genus for all of the willows and source of salicylic acid, the chemical derivative of the bark and leaves, the precursor of aspirin.  Melanostachys breaks down to black (melano) spike (stachys).

There are not too many plants whose flowers give the illusion of being black.  Take a close look at the male catkins (flowers) of this willow.  You’ll see the purple-black  catkins opening to bright red anthers.  This is no common member of the all too familiar image from movies and literature of the weeping willow growing at the water’s edge.  The Black Pussy Willow is by no means as graceful and pendent as its cousin.  This black sheep is nothing short of a neatly behaved blob !  It will reach 10 ft. in height and tolerates a wet site.  Every three to four years cut the plant to the ground to rejuvenate.

To enjoy the beauty of the classic weeping willow, you need to look no further than the Duck Pond on campus.  Our Black Pussy Willow is located in the mixed shrub border at the south end of the track known as the  Seamus McElligott garden.

And you know where to get your shamrock shake.

An early Spring for you and me

When the population of a little town swells to more than three times its 364 day head count, there must be a big deal.  That one day is February 2.  Travelling south from Interstate 80 takes people to Gobbler’s Knob in Panxsutawney, PA.  For 127 years Panxsutawney Phil has been a boom for the local economy and now is quite a TV and digital media event. The world waited for Phil’s prediction and he predicts an early spring!

I like to keep a close watch on the ground.  Waiting for the early signs of plants breaking ground is all the cue I need.  Alas, there won’t be 20,000 people flocking to campus in anticipation of the Hellebores blooming.  However, I am happy to announce the hellebores and witchhazels have woken up and are inviting us to put on an extra flannel shirt, go outside and see what’s new in the garden.

Helleborus orientalis, oriental hellebore is a tough and treasured small perennial that is at home in a shady garden.  The flowers emerge through last year’s foliage so a quick cutting back of the leaves on a warm January day sets the stage for their arrival.  There is a nice planting on the back side of Hall building behind a bench.  This locale is a bit warmer than some garden settings in that it receives a bath of warming winter sun and reflected heat off the stone building.  Native to Asia, they are in the Buttercup Family and every part of the plant is very poisonous to eat.  Combine this with any of the early spring bulbs like snowdrops, crocus, winter aconites and the like.

Oriental hellebore behind Hall building

Helleborus orientalis on a warm January day

For those of you who are reading this locally, you can join Arboretum Director, Bill Astifan this Sunday, February 10 at 1:30pm.  Bill will lead a walk titled “After the leaves are gone…fine beauty in the winter landscape”.  The tour departs from in front of Whitehead Campus Center.