2016-03-17 / From The Garden

Spring’s Wake-Up Call

By Cynthia Gibson

For centuries, Christians celebrating Palm Sunday have used the palm frond (cabbage palmetto) to symbolize the greeting of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. However, in many Eastern European countries (among them Poland, Bavaria, Austria, and Lithuania), celebrants instead carry pussy willows.

In these countries the Sunday before Easter became known as Willow Sunday, when parishioners carried small bundles of the branches to be blessed. The blessed branches could then be preserved in a vase without water, and would be kept next to the family’s icon throughout the year.

To this day, pussy willows can be found on Eastern European greeting cards for Christmas and New Year’s, but primarily at Easter. The cards often feature a handsome hare (not our version of the Easter Bunny), who might be wearing a hunting hat or smoking a pipe. He could have a basket with him, holding many beautifully colored eggs, or also be carrying a bundle of pussy willows. The branches are sometimes found on the card as decoration.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. The pussy willow is the first shrub that blossoms in spring. The soft, silvery catkin is really a flower; as it ages, it turns into an ovate orb of golden pollen and is quite striking. The job of the pussy willow is to alert the rest of the flowers, shrubs and trees that it is time to wake up from their long winter’s rest. It is also obvious that in the Eastern European climate, access to palm fronds was nearly impossible. The pussy willow became an appropriate and charming replacement for celebrating Easter.

Growing pussy willow is easy, as we are in a climate zone where they flourish. If you have it in your yard, this week is prime time to cut your branches, while the catkins are silver with no sign of yellow pollen. If you want to root them to create more shrubs, place them in a vase of water. It you want them to last for years as is, place them in a vase without water. Simple enough.

Cut pussy willow branches were always a favorite at Easter, as no child could resist pressing the soft catkin against their upper lip. The branches also make the best filler for a lovely Easter bouquet, along with tulips, forsythia, and daffodils as the prettiest harbingers of spring.

We cannot leave out the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum), as it is the most fragrant flower this time of year. With its regal stiff white collar, it is a statuesque and magnificent symbol of Easter. While notches above the lowly pussy willow, both have their place in your garden and in your vase at Easter.

Hopefully you have forced a few branches of forsythia in your yard as well. If not, the flower shops and grocery stores should be filled with all of the delightful blooms for Easter.

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