NEW PALTZ, N.Y. -- Here it is, still early spring, and already the fantail willow -- a kind of pussy willow -- is into its second show of the year.
This show is its most colorful one, and comes at a time when any color besides brown and gray is still at a premium.
No, the fantail willow's color won't knock your socks off. It's a hazy yellow, a soft cloud that comes from hundreds of gold-capped threads poking through the "fur" of each pussy willow bud.
Those threads are the male flower parts, the stamens, and their caps are golden yellow from grains of pollen. Notwithstanding the old nursery rhyme "I know a little pussy/Her coat is silver gray/She lives down in the meadow/Not far away," all pussy willows -- and there are a number of different ones -- are male.
The first show: The fantail willow's first show was its unexpanded flower buds, each soft and furry as a pussycat. That furry covering is actually a leaf, botanically speaking -- a modified leaf called a bract. It's the same botanical structure as the large red "petal" of the poinsettia.
(By the way, it has been suggested that the "pussy" of pussy willows comes not from the buds' resemblance to cat's fur but from the French word "pousse," meaning "budded.")
Actually, even before those furry buds expanded there was cause to admire the fantail willow. Even in the dead of winter, it livens up the scene, and that's the time when it lives up to its namesake. The "fantailing" is the result of fasciation, which occurs when a number of buds at the tip of a stem start growing together. The resulting shoots fuse into one wide, ribbed and flattened shoot that swirls around from the different growth rates of its growing tips.
This fasciation is surely interesting, perhaps pretty. All that twisting around can look almost painful. In fact, fasciation is often the result of virus infection, although whatever is causing it does not seem to otherwise harm fantail willows.
Easy beginnings: One place those fasciated stems always look nice is in a vase, plopped there just as their buds are expanding. That's how I got my fantail willow plant started. The forced stems came from a florist and, like other willows, they rooted readily as they sat in water in the vase. When warm weather settled in, I planted one of the rooted stems outdoors, figuring I'd then have a lifetime supply of branches for winter forcing.
That was years ago, and the plant is now a billowing mound about 10 feet high and wide. Like other willows, fantail is a fast grower. Unlike other willows, it never grows much larger than my plant's present size, so can be accommodated in smaller yards.
Another show: What I didn't know when I planted my stems was that this plant was going to put on four shows each year: the contorted branches, the unopened furry flower buds, the golden haze of expanded flowers -- and one more.
This final show will come from the leaves. Glossy, elongated and drooping, they are unremarkable individually. But tufted together along the stems, they present a shimmering mound of lushness that could be mistaken for bamboo or peach.
Fantail willow seems unaffected by any pests, so the leaves retain their vibrancy and youthful sheen all summer long.
As summer melts into fall, fantail willows either drop their leaves quickly or turn some ho-hum color. I don't remember. Fall is the only season I don't look at the plant.