Outdoors Magazine

Winter Tree Following: Cottonwood, Juniper, Willow

Posted on the 07 March 2015 by Hollis

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Cottonwood twigs collected in January are leafing out – indoors.  In the wild, leaves won't appear until late May.

It’s time to part with my cottonwood and choose a new tree to follow.  I was considering junipers (also called cedars) as they’re emblematic of the American West and linked to lots of interesting history and stories.  The trees are photogenic.  The wood is beautiful, varied, aromatic.  But … I was waylaid by a willow.
I was searching for a suitable juniper in the foothills just east of town.  They’re common, especially on rockier slopes and in draws.  We walked up a small dry draw with a box canyon at the head.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

The mouth of the draw is marked by the large clump of junipers right of center.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

The drainage widens beyond the mouth.  Junipers are common.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Further upstream, the draw narrows into a box canyon rimmed with limestone.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

That day the head of the box canyon was decorated with fresh snow cornices (photo by DM).

A large juniper in the bottom of the canyon caught my eye.  It grows in a neat spot.  After a hard rain or with enough snow melt, a temporary stream flows down the canyon and a side stream drops in off the cliff behind the juniper.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum, on left – a candidate for tree following.

When I squeezed through the brush to look at the north side, I found a leafless tree with white spots scattered through the crown.
Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow
Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Little cat feet.

The white spots were emerging catkins (flower clusters) … furry ones, like the catkins of pussy willows.  I collected two twigs to watch at home.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Willow kittens/catkins, after several weeks indoors.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Young catkin covered in dense silky hairs.  It must be male; female catkins lack fur.

Is this tree really a pussy willow?  It could be … the North American pussy willowSalix discolor, grows in southeast Wyoming.  But there are other willows with furry young catkins, so I won’t put a name on it yet.  Discretion is the better part of valor, in plant identification as well as war (Falstaff).

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Branching base of tree … or large shrub (willows are that way).

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Bark on stems and branches is pale and rough.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow
North American pussy willow is said to be one of the earliest trees to bloom ... long before leaves appear.  Willow keys are based on leaves so I will have to wait to identify this one, maybe months.  But whatever it is, I’m enchanted by this tree that blooms in February in cold snowy Wyoming.  I think I’ll follow it.

Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

Willow from canyon rim.


Tree following is a tradition started by Lucy Corrander of Loose and Leafy.  Followers from around the world “gather” each month to report on their trees.  Read the March news here. And consider joining us ... it's so interesting ... and fun!
Winter Tree Following:  cottonwood, juniper, willow

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