How to Grow Pussy Willows in Your Own Yard

Branch of pussy willows growing outside.
Andrea Jossen/Getty Images 

Picking pussy willows is truly one of our most enduring rites of spring, often performed before spring even arrives. Snow still covers the earth, but warmer weather brings us out of winter captivity on a February day for a walk in the woods. We round a bend in a swampy area, and, much to our delight, the beginnings of furry catkins greet our spring-starved eyes. We prune off a few branches, to be brought home and honored as spring's earliest harbinger.

If you are one of the millions who practice this time-honored ritual, why not plant pussy willows in your own yard, rather than trudging through the snow in some distant woodland to find them? Not only will they 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 in your landscape.

What Exactly Are Pussy Willows?

There is a pussy willow tree indigenous to wetlands in Canada and the eastern U.S. (Salix discolor), but there is also a type (Salix caprea) native to Europe and Asia. The latter is commonly called the "goat willow" and bears slightly bigger catkins (that's what the prized, furry buds are technically called) on plants that are also slightly bigger. The terminology, "pussy willows," is often used loosely to refer both to the trees themselves and to the catkins on their branches. 

Salix discolor can grow as either a deciduous shrub (bush) or as a tree that can reach a height of 20 feet. Both this species and S. caprea can be grown in USDA zones 4 to 8.

But for an exact identification, we must narrow it down even further. Pussy willows are dioecious. There are distinct male pussy willow trees and female pussy willow trees. The catkins on the male pussy willow trees usually appear earlier than do those on the females. So chances are that if you find a stand of pussy willows in early March, it's the male catkins that you are seeing. Since the whole point of having pussy willows is to enjoy a pre-taste of spring as early as possible, it is the male of the species that is more highly valued.

The catkins of males yield numerous tiny flowers full of pollen later in spring. From the decorator's perspective, it is at this point that the bouquet has "gone by." The female catkins bear flowers of their own that receive the males' pollen via flies and bees.

Planting Pussy Willows in the Yard

Since pussy willow trees are wetland plants in the wild, they could serve a useful purpose for those of you who suffer from poor yard drainage. Many plants don't like to grow in such spots. If you are lucky enough not to have any such drainage issue in your landscape, then you will have to provide your pussy willow trees with plenty of water. They do best in full sun, but they 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. Here's how to plant pussy willow trees:

  • Locate a plant that will serve as the parent plant.
  • Take cuttings from the new growth, not the older, gray-colored branches.
  • There are right and wrong ends of the cutting to stick in the ground. The end that you want to insert into the ground is the bottom end, the one where you made your cut.
  • Take a cutting that is about as thick as a pencil and at least 1 foot long. It needs to be long enough for a few inches to be underground (for stability), while a couple of nodes (the little bumps along the branch) should still be showing above ground.
  • If you do not wish to wait until summer, bring your pussy willow cuttings inside and root them in water; then transplant outside when the danger of frost is past.
  • These trees have invasive roots. So plant your cuttings far away from septic tank fields, sewer lines, or water lines.

Pussy willows can be kept more compact and shrub-like through proper pruning. These plants love moisture. They thrive along banks of streams in the wild and are useful for controlling soil erosion. But pussy willow shrubs have more typical landscaping uses, as well. If you prune your bushes properly, they form privacy screens or borders. In spring, carefully pruned pussy willows serve as specimen plants for the lawn.

Pruning Pussy Willows to Keep Them as Shrubs

The key to success in growing pussy willows as compact bushes for your landscaping lies in how you prune them:

  • Pruning pussy willows controls their size, which is an important consideration in itself because bushes with branches 20 feet high will be difficult to harvest for their pussy willows in late winter.
  • Pruning promotes vigorous new branches on the bushes which will produce larger catkins. New shoots will be encouraged to emerge from the roots as suckers.
  • Should you decide that the plant has become too untidy and you'd like to start from scratch, know that this plant responds well to drastic pruning. You can prune it right down to the ground, and it will still come up again.
  • Pruning bushes also helps prevent disease, fungus, and insect problems.

Winter is an excellent time in which to prune many plants, taking advantage of their dormancy. However, in the case of plants that bloom on shoots produced during the previous growing season, winter pruning robs you of this spring's blooms. Fortunately, this is not a problem with pussy willows. For although the catkins do appear on last season's shoots, they arrive in late winter. Simply harvest the pussy willows, then complete your pruning of the bushes.

Steps for Pruning Pussy Willows Properly:

  1. Harvest the tops of branches bearing catkins.
  2. Remove any dead branches.
  3. Cut one-third of the oldest branches back to the ground. The oldest branches are the gray-colored ones.
  4. Determine where the newest (brown-colored) branches are, the vigorous new growth coming from lower on the main stems. The tops of these branches will serve as a gauge for your remaining cuts.
  5. The remaining cuts will be made on the branches the tops of which you just harvested for their catkins. Make your cuts back to the level where the newest branches are.
  6. Repeat this process for three years in a row. At this point, all of the oldest growth of the pussy willow shrubs will have been removed. 

Of course, you will also be pruning with an eye to shaping the pussy willow shrubs to suit your tastes. Use sharp anvil pruners and make your cuts above nodes. Cutting above nodes that grow along the outside (furthest from the center of the shrubs) of branches is most effective. An offshoot from the outer part of a branch will grow outward and is less likely to cross over other branches. Branches of pussy willows that are already crossing should be removed. They shade each other, reducing the number of catkins.

The idea behind pruning pussy willows is to promote new branches that have plenty of room to grow without touching each other. You want to increase the size of the shrubs laterally while restricting their upward growth. To the eye of most people, a rounded shape is preferable for pussy willow shrubs.

Wildlife, Problems, Preserving

The Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project of Prince Edward Island, Canada notes the importance of pussy willows for feeding wild birds and other wildlife:

"Willow buds are second only to the buds of poplars as preferred food of ruffed grouse. Beaver...muskrat, red squirrel, and snowshoe hare all include willow in their diet. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and zinc. Pussy willows are an important nesting site for American goldfinch, while other songbirds use them to a lesser degree. The cover and protection thickets of willow provide are probably of equal importance to wildlife as its food value."

Deer also like to eat the branches of pussy willows. All this attention from wildlife has its good side, of course, especially for bird watching. But the downside is that, if you don't want your pussy willows damaged, you'll have to protect them, perhaps with chicken wire or some other fencing.

Other problems in growing these plants include the following:

For lovers of pussy willows, enjoying the furry catkins on outdoor plants in March is hardly sufficient. We bring them indoors to grace our homes, and, once inside, we become spoiled by their presence and recognize their potential in dried flower arrangements. So we want to learn how to preserve pussy willows. To preserve pussy willows, reverse the thought-process under which you would operate for forcing pussy willows and other flowers. Water intake is central to the forcing process. By contrast, preserving pussy willows for dried flower arrangements entails depriving them of water at the right time. If you pick the pussy willows, bring them inside, and keep them in water for weeks, they'll "go by" (and lose their beauty), so you want to avoid that.

To preserve pussy willows, simply cut branches in spring when the catkins are fully opened. When you bring them inside, put them in an empty vase, without water. 

Forcing Pussy Willows Indoors

Depressed by winter's gloom, we sometimes want to rush the pussy willows along, enjoying them in the artificially warm temperatures of our winter homes by forcing them. In early or late February (depending on where you live) you can pick branches with catkins that haven't fully opened yet and force them inside (after successfully forcing them, you may want to preserve them, as well, for use in dried flower arrangements):

  1. Watch for swelling at the nodes along the branches of pussy willows. This is the first indication of the catkins to come (you'll just be hastening their arrival).
  2. Pick a day with temperatures above freezing, if possible, to begin the operation.
  3. Cut a length of a branch about 2 feet long. Repeat for as many branches as you desire or are available.
  4. Bring pussy willows inside the house.
  5. Place the bottoms of the branches in a vase filled with lukewarm water. With their bottoms thus submerged, cut approximately the bottom 1 inch off. This second cut, performed underwater where air cannot act as a drying agent, will promote water intake. If you can add a floral preservative to the water, so much the better.
  6. Wrap the exposed areas of the branches in damp newspaper or cloth to preserve humidity.
  7. Place the vase in a cool, dark spot for a day or two, until the stems begin to show color.
  8. Remove the newspaper or cloth.
  9. Place the vase in a cool spot (60 to 65 degrees, Fahrenheit) in indirect sun. Mist the branches occasionally until the pussy willows appear.