One of the early, sweet signs of spring is when the pussy willow buds start to emerge. This fuzzy little nubs pop out on all types of willow branches–look for them in the shrubby thickets of trees that grow along streams.
Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) has broad leaves that are green and leathery on top, netted with a complex tracery of tiny veins. Below they are covered with a fine white fur. Willows are abundant and versatile, and were used extensively by native tribes. Limbs were made into baskets, and bark into string. Willow bark has the same compounds as aspirin, and it was used as a painkiller–both eaten and applied topically as well. Various parts of the tree were used in many ways for cooking, such as making a fire hearth from willow roots, drying salmon on branches, and wiping up fish slime with leaves. Shredded bark was used in baby diapers. Sitka willow was also a talisman–boughs were tied to boats for safe crossing when river water was high, and the plants were beaten with sticks to call for wind on hot days.
This willow grows throughout the west, north into Alaska and along the California coast as far south as Santa Barbara. It’s one of seven species of willow found in Marin county.