How to Grow and Care For Pussy Willow

pussy willow tree

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Pussy willow is the name given to several smaller willow species in the Salix genus at the phase when the furry catkins appear in early spring. The name is most often applied to the North American native deciduous shrub,Salix discolor, though two European species, S. caprea and S. cinerea, are also sometimes known as pussy willow. The furry catkins of pussy willows are one of spring's earliest harbingers; the branches are often cut for use in decorative arrangements. Though most often found in wild wetland areas, you can grow this shrub in your yard if you have the proper conditions. Proper pruning allows you to show off these plants with maximum impact in your landscape.

Pussy willows grow quite fast and will spread quickly, achieving heights as much as 25 feet for some species. Simply sticking a pussy willow branch into the soil will produce a fully developed adult plant in a matter of a few months. Planting is generally done in the spring, but it will succeed during the summer, as well.

Common Name Pussy willow, glaucous willow
Botanical Name Salix discolor
Family Salicaceae
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 6–25 ft. tall, 4–15 ft. in spread
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Loamy, rich
Soil pH Neutral (6.8–7.2)
Bloom Time March to April
Flower Color White with yellow stamens and greenish styles
Hardiness Zones 4–8 (USDA)
Native Area Upper North America
closeup of pussy willow
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
pussy willow branches
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Pussy Willow Care

In native habitat, pussy willows are wetland plants. They will need plenty of water and are therefore a good choice for any poorly draining locations in your yard. All willows have invasive roots, so plant them far away from septic tank fields, sewer lines, and water lines. Pussy willows can be kept more compact and shrub-like through proper pruning.

Willows in general are rather weak and brittle plants, so keeping them well pruned can prevent damage from ice and snow.

Light

Pussy willows do best in full sun, but they will tolerate some shade.

Soil

This plant likes loamy, moist, rich soil. It wants to be kept wet. It will tolerate poorly-drained soil, but performance is best if the soil is well-drained but kept constantly moist.

Water

These plants love moisture. They thrive along banks of streams in the wild and are useful for controlling soil erosion. You will need to ensure they have plenty of water and are not subjected to drought conditions. In dense, water-retentive soil, about 1 inch of rain/irrigation per week is usually sufficient, but in porous soil, your pussy willow may require more frequent watering. The goal is to keep the soil constantly damp.

Temperature and Humidity

Pussy willows grow best in temperate conditions with cold winters, as is typical in the Northern U.S. and Canada (zones 4 and 5) They grow slower in warmer climates (zones 6 to 8). Pussy willows readily tolerate high humidity.

Fertilizer

Pussy willows can do well when fed with just compost or leaf mold. You can fertilize them once in the fall with a balanced fertilizer after the plant is more than one year old. Use 1/2 pound of fertilizer for every 1/2 inch of base-trunk diameter, spread 18 inches beyond the drip line of the branches. Don't let the fertilizer come into contact with the trunk of the plant.

Types of Pussy Willow

Salix discolor is the North American native plant to which the name pussy willow is most often applied. However, several other Salix species also may carry same common name:

  • Salix caprea: This Eurasian pussy willow is also called goat willow.
  • Salix caprea pendula: This is the weeping pussy willow that grows like a ground cover rather than an upright bush.
  • Salix cinerea: Native to Europe and western Asia, this plant has a reputation for invasiveness. It has naturalized in wetlands across the Eastern U.S. but should be avoided as a landscape plant.

Pruning

Pruning promotes new branches that have plenty of room to grow without touching each other and results in larger catkins. The goal is to increase the size of the shrubs laterally while restricting their upward growth. Pruning also helps prevent disease, fungus, and insect problems.

A rounded shape is preferable for pussy willow shrubs. Should you decide that the plant has become too untidy and you'd like to start from scratch, this plant responds well to drastic pruning. You can prune it right down to the ground, and it will still come up again—with a more pleasing rounded shape.

Harvesting catkin branches for decorative use is usually done in late winter or early spring, but winter is an excellent time for major pruning, taking advantage of their dormancy. An annual pruning routine for pussy willows follows this sequence:

  1. Each later winter or early spring, harvest the tops of branches bearing catkins.
  2. In winter, remove any dead branches, then cut one-third of the oldest branches back to the ground. The oldest branches are the gray-colored ones.
  3. 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. 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. 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.
  4. Branches that are already crossing should be removed. They shade each other, reducing the number of catkins.

Practiced every year over a period of three years, this pruning process will remove all the old growth of the shrub, keeping it fresh and vibrant.

Propagating Pussy Willows

When you want to create new plants, pussy willows can be propagated through stem cuttings or by collecting and planting seeds. However, the stem cutting method is so easy that it is it by far the most popular approach. For example, simply planting a row of stem cuttings in a line can quickly establish a living fence. Here's how to use the stem cutting method:

  1. Using bypass pruners, take a cutting that is about as thick as a pencil and at least 1 foot long from the new growth, not the older, gray-colored branches. Green, supple growth is better than older stems for purposes of propagation.
  2. Insert the cut (bottom) end of the branch into the ground, with a few inches underground for stability and a couple of nodes (the little bumps along the branch) showing above ground.
  3. Water regularly, making sure the soil is always damp. Roots and new leaves will develop within a few weeks, and growth will be very rapid after that.

If you do not wish to wait until summer, bring your pussy willow cuttings inside and root them in water; transplant outside when the danger of frost is past.

How to Grow Pussy Willows from Seed

Pussy willows are so easy to propagate from stem cuttings that seed propagation is not very common, except among serious enthusiasts. But it is fairly east to grow the plants from seeds by collecting the seeds from the catkins at the point when they look the most cottony. Immediately sow the seeds in a small container on the surface of the potting mix with the silky seed hairs still attached.

Keep the container soil moist until the seeds germinate and sprout, then continue growing them until strong seedlings develop, at which time the new plants can be transplanted into the landscape.

Overwintering

No special overwintering techniques are required for this plant, though it is recommended to make sure the plant is kept well-watered in late fall until the ground freezes hard.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Pussy willow is prone to a wide number of disease and pest problems, though it is such a vigorous shrub that it survives most any threat without much intervention, other than pruning away damaged branches.

Common diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spots, gray scab, and cankers. Affected branches (or entire plants) should be pruned out. Insect pests include aphids, scale, borers, lacebugs, and caterpillars; when infestations are severe, pesticides can be used.

How to Get Pussy Willows to Bloom

Little needs to be done to ensure that willows form bloom clusters (catkins). The trick is really clipping the harvested branches at the right time and preserving them in a manner that's most useful for decorative arrangements.

Preserving pussy willow branches entails depriving them of water at the right time. If you pick the pussy willows then bring them inside and keep them in water for weeks, they'll "go by" (flower out and lose their beauty), so you want to avoid that.

Another method is to harvest the branches before the catkins open. In late winter or early spring (depending on where you live) you can pick branches with catkins that haven't fully opened yet and force them to open inside. To do so:

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

After successfully forcing the catkins open, you can then remove them from water and preserve them for use in dried flower arrangements.

Common Problems With Pussy Willow

Pussy willows are generally fairly fast-growing, prolific plants, so there is usually no problem with harvesting enough branches for your arrangement needs. However, there are several problems that may occur with these shrubs in the landscape:

Yellowish-Green Leaves

This is your pussy willow's way of telling you it needs more light. If it's in a pot, it should be easy to move. If it's planted in the ground, look upward and see if branches from other trees are blocking its sunlight; pruning surrounding trees will improve the growth of your pussy willow.

Cracking Banches

In general, willows have rather weak, brittle branches. When there's wind or heavy icing, the branches may split or crack. You can stave off some problems by tying the branches up if there's a big storm brewing and using a broom or brush to lessen ice and snow build-up.

Wildlife Damage

Deer, squirrels, and birds like to eat the branches of pussy willows. If you don't want your pussy willows damaged, you'll have to protect them with chicken wire or some other fencing.

FAQ
  • Do pussy willows attract butterflies?

    Yes. Salix discolor is known to attract viceroy and mourning cloak butterflies.

  • How long do pussy willows live?

    Pussy willows last from 20 to 50 years if they're taken care of correctly.

  • How can I use pussy willows in the landscape?

    In addition to making a good plant for boggy, damp areas, pussy willows are useful for shoring up the banks of ponds or creeks. They can also be kept trimmed to form an informal hedge or property screen.

  • Why are my pussy willow catkins so drab?

    Only male plants have showy catkins. If your plant has rather small, drab green catkins, it is probably a female plant. If you are growing pussy willows to harvest branches for decorative arrangements, it's best to buy male plants, which have larger, pearly white catkins.


    Pussy willows are dioecious, with the male pussy willow trees producing attractive white catkins earlier than the dull greenish catkins produced by female trees The catkins of male plants yield numerous tiny flowers full of pollen later in spring, and when the blooms reach this point, they are no longer considered decorative for floral cuttings. The female catkins bear flowers of their own that receive the males' pollen via flies and bees. On both genders, the oval leaves come out after the catkins, at which point the plant becomes a typical willow shrub, with dull green, lance-shaped leaves.

Article Sources
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  1. Plant of the Week: Pussy Willow. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Extension.