What are those little gray things, anyway? First of all, what are those little gray things on this plant? The gray “fur” is part of the flower bud. It’s just an outer protective coat around the rest of the bud. And why do pussy willows have this distinctive feature? It’s because they are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in the northeast. The fur helps keep the bud protected from the cold temperatures as it develops. Except on those branches you cut and keep (without water!) in the house to preserve the gray pussy toes, the buds will soon open up and display a fuzzy greenish-yellowish-whitish catkin. As the catkins drop off, leaves will begin to emerge in their place.
Wildlife value. The little pussy toes are apparent in March or April, and the catkins are fully open by April if not before. As such, this plant is an important early season nectar source for emerging insects. And because it attracts insects, it’s in turn an important early season source of food for insect-eating birds.
Its wildlife value doesn’t end there, either. Pussy willows provide good nest sites for shrub-nesting birds such as American goldfinch, and, in suitable habitat, for Yellow Warblers. I’ve also read that several duck species eat the catkins and Ruffed Grouse nibble the twigs and buds. I’m not going to expect those to show up in my backyard, though.