Bending But Not Breaking

The stream that I am following crosses a power line. This electical transmission line is about 450 feet in width and where the stream bisects the corridor it is relatively flat. The stream is deeply incised, has steep banks, and it meanders just a wink. The banks of the stream are over run with arching shrubs whose stems start on the bank and its branches sweep the current in the brook.

On this day it is rainy. Cold rain. It is thirty-eight degrees on this mid-Marrch afternoon; a dank and chilly day. Some would think it down right miserable. I am different than most in that way. The more terrible the weather the better I like it. Got that from my father.

The shrubs that bunch up along the stream bank are in constant motion. The melting snow has swollen the brook and the water is high. The arching branch tips that intersect the moving water bounce up and down with each pulse of the splashing torrent. These are pussy willows and they have just begun to bloom. The miniature rabbit’s tails that grace the branches are actually flowers: silvery catkins that will turn from whitish gray to yellow in a few weeks when they release their pollen.

Willow shrubs are supple. I’ve often thought that the expression “bend but don’t break” must have been in someone’s mind when this phrase was first used. Their great flexibility aids their survival. It is an adaptation that has given them a slight evolutionary advantage over more rigid, less fleixible shrubs.

Pussy willow, or Salix discolor, as it is known amongst botanists has many amazing traits but none more incredible than the geographic range in which it is found. From the deep south clear into the tundra of Canada and Alaska this beautiful shrub prevails. Any plant that can be found both in Mississippi and along the fringe of the cold, frozen tundra is a genuine survivor. Any one plant that can withstand temperatures of 110 degrees in one location and -50 degrees in another spot gets my vote for the most versatile. This unbelievable ability allows this plant to survive nearly any climate it will encounter, get through the sweeping changes of instable environments, and come out the other side looking like a true botanial super hero. Perhaps these are all features that will be necessary to carry on the family name during a long period of volatile weather and changing climate.

The pussy willow is just one of about 400 willows that occurs on this third planet from the sun. Willows are found from the tropics to the Arctic Circle. They are both trees and shrubs. They can reproduce both by sexual reproduction and vegetatively. Vegetative reproduction takes place when arching branches lay on the soil and take root producing an exact clone of the parent plant. Often rooting hormone products that are manufactured to promote root growth in nursery stock include both indolebutyric acid (IBA) and salicylic acid (SA) extracted from a willow plant. The salicylic acid, or salicin, is also the main ingredient of aspirin pain reliever. Native americans have used willow bark extract for centuries as a pain remedy.

The water in this stream is clear, pure, and supports brook trout; a species of char that needs pristine water for its environment. These fish are hypersensitive to pollution and will not tolerate high nutrient levels in the water column. Willows are very effective at phytoremediation and help to keep both streams and wetlands free of pollutants. They uptake excess nutrients and other toxins process them for energy and either off-gas the byproducts or hold the residuals and release them slowly over a long period of time at nontoxic levels back into the soil or water. These natural water purifiers have been “treating” streams for centuries aiding animals and plants alike who depend on these precious resources and environments.

Interestingly willows grow so thickly that they can act as a natural snow fence. By evidence on this site I can see the deep snow on the west side of the strream piled up against and burying some of the pussy willows. On the east side the snow is shallow and some bare ground can be seen where melting has occurred. Willows also root heavily and serve to stabilize stream banks. They are an oft chosen plant in stream restoration sites. Their natural hormones promote root growth and the heavy rooting holds the soil in place along stream banks in all but the heaviest storms.

In Medievil Europe there was a folk tale about willows. One was never supposed to tell a secret while amongt the plant. If you did it was said that a breeze would wash the secret out into the world and the secret would be discoved by any who encountered that same breeze. Goodness knows how this myth was started but given for the human proclivity to hold and tell secrets I’ll bet there was a lot of people avoiding willow groves in those days.

Chasing the boundaries of the stream it does not take me long to pass across the width of the transmission line. The willow shrubs continue only a few yards into the forest along the brook where light becomes thin due to the overhead branches.

As I move downstream. A soft wind blows. I’m hoping that I my secrets did not blow across the landscape. My reptutation could be seriously impaired if that is the case.

Still, not to worry, I’m a flexibile fellow who can still, even at my age, bend rather than break; a decided advanatage in a rigid culture.

Written for in March 2013.

  • Montucky

    They are indeed wonderful plants. Every time I see them it brings many memories of fishing along the streams of Montana ever since I was a child. Their catkins have been out here for several weeks now.

  • Wild_Bill

    Ours just started this week. Really is always the first real sign of spring in these parts.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    I haven’t seen pussy willows for years.and I used to cut a”bouquet ” every year. I don’t know if they have dwindled or I’m not whre I need to be, but I’m going to keep a better eye out this year and see… Yes, bending is essential… :)

  • Wild_Bill

    Pussy willows can be found near the edges of wetlands, along stream corridors, and generally in abandoned wet ground. They are most obvious in the early spring when they produce their unique flower. Several species actually produce the flowers that we refer to as pussy willows. Salix discolor being the most common. Although I am no expert in Minnesota botanical species I can’t imagine that you don’t have them there. I’ve been to Minnesota but it’s been about 40 years or so.

  • Emily

    A great read on this Friday afternoon, Bill, will lovely photos to accompany it. If its harder these days to get out myself on walks like this, at least I can vicariously tag along with you. :)

  • Wild_Bill

    Nice to hear from you Emily. I’ll bet it’s harder to get away. Pretty soon you’ll be able to take your little bundle of joy with you! An early introduction to nature is so essential. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Sometimes when I’m writing I think “What would Emily Say?”.

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