Willows begin their slow ascent back to spring life

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By Sylvia Brockner

We’ve been blessed with spring-like weather during much of the month of January, while the high country has had plenty of snow for the ski resorts. Who could ask for any better weather for all of us? Now I can’t help but wonder if we will have to pay for this fine weather with too much snow in February and March. I hope not.
One of the spectacular shows of nature is to be seen at this time of year. It is the early signs of spring as shown by the deciduous trees along our waterways. The stream-side trees are usually willows, poplars or cottonwoods in this area. They are all members of the willow family, which are all able to grow along the streambeds where they find enough water to meet their needs.
There are both tree and shrub willows in this habitat, but narrow-leaf cottonwood and trembling aspen are found there, too. This time of year, the snow is dirty with windblown soil and pine needles. Ice has melted, leaving behind gumbo backroads, and the ponderosa pines are black looking after a long period of winter dormancy. All in all, the view out my window is rather dingy and dirty, but then the roots of the trees along the streams reach water and the ground begins to thaw, and a miracle begins to appear. The twigs on the willows, last year’s growth, begin to receive moisture and nourishment from the underground water, and they begin to revive for a new year of growth. The first indication of this is that the bark on last summer’s growth begins to change color. Instead of the dull colors of winter, they begin to show the new shining glow of life and become brilliant. The willow trees lead this parade with bright branches looking like golden flags rippling in the blue spring sky.
As the month wears on, the color begins to intensify until the twigs are brilliant glossy orange, glowing with the promise of new growth to come. Down in the valley, following the graceful curves of the streams, the shrub willows are all aglow with red, yellow, blue and purple. It is a pleasure to drive along any road that follows a meandering stream to see this brilliance against a new fallen spring snow.
Willows are difficult to identify because to do so, you must have young leaves, mature leaves, flowering and fruiting catkins, and stipules. All of these parts mature at different times and are never all available at any one time. Therefore, you must make several trips to the same tree or shrub throughout the season. A few years ago, I tagged three shrub willows along Little Cub Creek. After about three trips to visit them, when I returned to gather more information, someone had removed all my tags. All of my earlier observations were useless since I could not complete them. My time and energy were wasted. I would like to repeat the study but now am too old to be sliding up and down the creek bank. So, I may never be sure just which species those shrubs are.
However, I think the brilliant yellow shrub is Salix monticola. The blue-stemmed shrub is probably Salix drummondiana. The purplish brown-stemmed one may be Salix melanopsis, and the thicket of brownish-red stems is more than likely Salix exigua, the sandbar willow. Maybe this summer I can get the parts I need to do a better identification. However, even if I never learn what the true identification of these willows is, I guess it won’t matter. I do know they are beautiful and no matter what their proper name is, they make our late winter a beautiful work of art: red, blue, yellow and purple curving through our meadows, white with fresh spring snow.
At about the same time, the willows are beginning to glow, the aspen and cottonwoods begin to glow, too. The narrow-leaf cottonwood first loses the dullness of winter and begins to shine. The fine branches at the tips of the stems shimmer in the sunlight, and they look like the fine filagree that Italian jewelers make out of silver wire. They are absolutely exquisite. About the end of March, the aspen and cottonwood buds begin to swell, they begin to ooze a sticky substance around the bud scales that has a strong odor that increases until the buds open.
Both cottonwoods and aspen have catkins, which elongate until they dangle from the stems. They bear female and male catkins on separate trees. The female flower develops the fruit, which bears a tuft of cotton to float it on the wind. At the right time, you can see them and their cotton all along the roadways. The male flowers develop a hanging catkin that produces the pollen that is wind-blown to fertilize other trees.
All willows have a single scale covering their bud. This is pushed off to expose the catkin, which lies below. The aspen and cottonwoods have several scales that overlap and are glued together with a sticky substance to keep the catkin bud warm until they open. If you are looking at willows, you may see a pinecone gall. This is the result of a gallfly laying her egg in a willow bud, causing the bud to produce an abnormal growth, trying to get rid of the insect larva. If cut open, you may find the little insect larva still inside. Every species of gallfly is parasitic on one specific plant and makes a specific gall. The pinecone gall is only found on willows and seldom in enough numbers to seriously damage the plant.