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Pussy Willows

Pussy willows are usually thought of as being wild plants, but don't let that stop you from using them as landscape shrubs. In fact, varieties of pussy willow a bit fancier than the wild type are available at nurseries. For the observant, pussy willows have a prominent place in the cycle of the seasons. When these harbingers of spring unfurl their furry catkins, it means better weather is right around the corner.

It is truly one of our most enduring spring rites, performed before spring even arrives. Snow still covers the earth, but warmer weather brings you out of winter captivity on a February day for a walk in the woods. You round a bend in a swampy area and, lo and behold! pussy willows greet your spring-starved eyes. You prune off a few branches studded with furry pussy willows, to be brought home and honored as spring's earliest harbinger.

One of our most time-honored spring rites it is, and free to boot. But if you find pussy willow trees as delightful as I do, you may wish to make one alteration in this rite of spring: namely, plant them in your landscape, rather than trudging through the snow somewhere to find them. Not only will the pussy willows be that much closer to you for harvesting, but you'll also be more likely to prune them properly. And proper pruning allows you to show off these plants with maximum impact on your landscape.

Pussy willow trees are native to wetlands of Canada and the eastern U.S. As a willow, the trees are part of the genus, Salix. The terminology pussy willows is used loosely to refer both to the trees themselves and to the furry buds on its branches (also known as "catkins"). However, to make a distinction, I refer to the former as "pussy willow trees" and to the latter as "pussy willows." The Latin name for these trees in North America is Salix discolor, while its rough equivalent in Europe, the "goat willow," goes by the scientific moniker, Salix caprea. Technically, Salix discolor is a deciduous shrub that can reach a height of twenty feet, if not pruned properly. Pruning back Salix discolor to a typical "shrub" size is central to its maintenance as a landscape plant.

But for an exact identification, we must narrow it down even further. Pussy willows are dioecious. There are male pussy willow trees and female pussy willow trees. The buds, or catkins, on the male pussy willow trees look different from those on the females. The male catkins are showier, and it is the branches of the male trees that we seek for their "pussy willows." The catkins of males yield numerous tiny staminate flowers later in spring. From the decorator's perspective, it is at this point that the bouquet has "gone by." Likewise, the female catkins will bear pistillate flowers.

Planting pussy willows in the landscape

Since pussy willow trees are wetland plants in the wild, they would obviously be ideal occupants for any areas of your landscape that suffer from poor drainage. If you are lucky enough not to have any such areas on your landscape, then you'll have to provide your pussy willow trees with plenty of water. They do best in full sun, but pussy willow trees will tolerate shade.

Propagating pussy willow trees is easy. They root so readily that cut branches can simply be inserted into moist soil in summer. Roots will develop within a few weeks. A few planting tips for pussy willow trees to remember:

  1. Take the cuttings from the new growth on male pussy willows, not the older, gray-colored branches.

  2. There's a right and a wrong end of the cutting to stick in the ground. The end that you want to insert into the ground is the end that you cut— in other words, the bottom of the stem as it was growing in the wild.

  3. Take a cutting that is about as thick as a pencil and at least one foot long. It needs to be long enough for a few inches to be underground (for stability), while a couple of nodes should still be showing above ground.

  4. If you don't wish to wait until summer, bring your pussy willow cuttings inside and root them in water; then transplant outside when danger of frost is past.

  5. These trees have invasive roots. Consequently, plant your cuttings far away from septic tank fields, sewer lines or water lines.



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