Here’s a blog combining my love of cats with my love of plant science!

 PUSSY WILLOW

 

As spring begins, pussy willows, a favorite of mine, come to mind and I hope I will see some this spring.  I don’t have a known spot where I can watch them so it’s only by chance that I get a look at them when their male flower buds haven’t quite fully opened yet and they are covered with the fine gray fur that gives them their name.  The American pussy willow (Salix discolor) is native to North America and is one of the harbingers of spring.  In many northern areas it is used in place of palm fronds by churches on Palm Sunday because palms are not native to their areas.  This custom is used today by the Ukrainian Catholic, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Polish Catholic émigrés in North America.  It is also included traditionally in celebrations of Polish Dyngus Day (Easter Monday). 

Pussy willows (and other willow species) are useful for preventing erosion along stream banks and on slopes.  They will do well in almost any soil with plenty of organic matter and prefer full sun but can tolerate light shade.  Pruning can help maintain a desirable shape and promote catkin production.  Catkins are produced in the spring from buds produced the previous year so don’t prune until after flowering.  Cuttings can be brought inside and placed in water in a sunny spot after mid January for early bloom.  These cuttings will root easily and can be planted outside once the soil warms.

 CATNIP

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 Well, if you could ask a cat, catnip would probably be their favorite plant.  When given a pinch of catnip or a catnip-stuffed toy mouse, even the most sedentary, dignified cat will become playful and silly, jumping on and rolling around with their prize.  In our three cat household, it is quite entertaining to give them this treat once in a while.   Not all cats are attracted to catnip, about 2/3 of them are.  The chemical in catnip that causes all the fuss is nepetalactone.

The catnip or catmint plant (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb native to Europe & Asia and introduced to North America and other parts of the world.  It grows to 20-40” tall and has white flowers finely spotted with purple. It can be aggressive in the garden (and draw cats), so it’s best confined to fenced gardens or borders. 

 Oil from catnip can be used to repel insects including mosquitoes, cockroaches, and termites. Many plant pests including aphids, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, Colorado potato beetle larvae, Japanese beetles, plant hoppers, flea beetles, weevils and spittlebugs have been repelled by catnip interplanted among vegetable plants.  Unfortunately, some beneficial insects are also repelled by catnip plants used as companion plants in the garden.  Also, in some studies, the aggressive competition of the catnip plants with the other crops reduced harvest, possibly outweighing its benefits.

 You can make your own catnip toys.  Grow catnip in full sun in a well drained soil. Harvest by cutting the plants just as the flowers begin to open.  Dry in a warm, dry location then rub the leaves off the plant being careful not to powder them. Use a tough fabric that can stand up to cat’s claws and sew and stuff the toys. 

 CATTAILS

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 The common cattail (Typha latifolia) is the most common species in the northeastern United States.  It grows in muddy areas or shallow water and is an important plant in the succession of sites from open water to marshland to dry land.  They reproduce both by wind-borne seeds (for dispersal to new locations) and by rhizomes (for local spread).  Male flowers occur on a narrow spike at the top of the stem just above the female flowers.  After pollination, the development of seeds within the female flowers forms the large brown cigar-like “cattail”. Other common names of cattails are punks and corndog grass. 

 Cattails are a very nutritious edible plant.  Every part including the rhizomes, shoots, flower spikes, and even the pollen are edible.  The rhizomes are usually harvested from late fall to early spring and are tasty as a cooked vegetable, but a lot of work to dig up!

Harvesting shoots (prior to flower formation in early summer) is much easier and they are delicious raw in salads. They can also be used in soups, stir fries, and other dishes, or just sautéed in oil with other vegetables and seasonings.  They have a mild flavor similar to cucumbers or zucchini. 

 Native Americans also used jelly produced from the shoots to treat wounds, sores, inflammations and boils.  Leaves were used to make dolls similar to corn-husk dolls, mats, baskets and roof thatch. Archeologists have found 10,000+ year old cattail mats in Nevada.  The downy fluff from the mature seed heads was used to line moccasins.  It can also be used as a stuffing for pillows but should be covered with batting because it can cause skin irritation. 

 Here’s a recipe using cattails:

 Pasta with Cat’s Tail (Serves 6-8)

 24 oz. pasta

½ cup olive oil

1 ½ lb. peeled, sliced cattail shoots

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

½ cup parsley, goutweed, or waterleaf, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Cook pasta with 1 Tbsp. olive oil.
  2. Saute’ cattail shoots in remaining olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring often.
  3. Add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes
  4. Add the pasta, parsley and salt and pepper.
  5. Heat through and serve.

From The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook.