Planting Pussy Willows in the Yard: Care Tips

Salix discolor

Pussy willow catkins (image) are symbolic of spring. They're in the Salix genus.
Pussy willow catkins are iconic symbols of early spring. David Beaulieu

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 the furry catkins, 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 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 on your landscape.

What Exactly Are 'Pussy Willows?'

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 their 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 can grow as either a deciduous shrub (bush) or as a tree that can reach a height of twenty feet if not pruned properly.

As you'll see, 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 usually appear earlier than do those on the females. Consequently, chances are that if you encounter a stand of pussy willows in the winter, it's the male catkins that you are seeing.

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." The female catkins will bear pistillate flowers.

Planting Pussy Willows on the Landscape

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

    Pussy willows can be constrained to look like shrubs through proper pruning, as mentioned on earlier. These plants love moisture, and consequently, they thrive along banks of streams 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. Later we'll discuss what to do with pussy willows after harvesting them from their bushes.

    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 -- an important consideration in itself, since bushes with branches 20' 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."

    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:

    Harvest the tops of branches bearing catkins.

    Remove any dead branches.

    Then cut one-third of the oldest branches back to the ground. The oldest branches are the gray-colored ones.

    Next, 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 determined in step #4.

    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 -- you have a "new" shrubs.

    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 (i.e., 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, unimpeded/unimpeding growth. 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.

    Pussy Willows and Feeding Wild Birds

    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.

    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. We don't want nature to take its course with them, which causes them to "go by." Thus we engage in preserving pussy willows to make dried flower arrangements.

    Depressed by winter's gloom, we also want to rush the pussy willows along -- enjoying them in the artificially warm temperatures of our January and February homes. This is called forcing pussy willows.

    Preserving and forcing are two different jobs, so I treat each of them below, separately:

    Preserving Pussy Willows for Making Dried Flower Arrangements

    Perhaps you are seeking pussy willows for making dried flower arrangements. Either by arranging them with other dried flowers or letting them stand on their own, dried pussy willows can spruce up your indoor decor for years to come. But if this is your goal, reverse the thought-process under which you would operate for forcing pussy willows (see below). 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.

    There are two schools of thought on the process of preserving pussy willows -- one simple, the other more complex. The simple method is to cut your pussy willows when they have reached the stage that you find most attractive (whether tight or more open). When you bring them home, put them in a vase -- but without water. Just an empty vase. The steps for preserving pussy willows by the more complex method are as follows, as detailed by GardenCompass.com:

    • Cut the pussy willows outdoors just before they are about to burst out of their brown caps. This means waiting till later in the winter to pick them than you would if you were forcing pussy willows (see below).
    • Immerse the cut ends immediately in cold water.
    • After about 4-5 days, remove your pussy willows from water, bundle the branches loosely in bunches of 5 and hang upside down in a cool, dry room such as a closet, for a couple of weeks.
    • Then gently remove the brown caps that cover the buds and arrange them in a vase without water.

    Forcing Pussy Willows Indoors

    In early or late February (depending on where you live) you can pick pussy willows and force them inside. After successfully forcing them, you may or may not want to preserve them (see above) as well for use in dried flower arrangements. Follow these steps:

    • 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).
    • Pick a day with temperatures above freezing, if possible, to begin the operation.
    • Cut a length of branch about 2'. Repeat for as many branches as you desire or are available.
    • Bring pussy willows inside the house.
    • Place the bottoms of the branches in a vase filled with lukewarm water. With their bottoms thus submerged, cut approximately the bottom 1" 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.
    • 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.
    • Remove the newspaper or cloth.
    • Now place the vase in a cool spot (60-65 degrees, Fahrenheit) in indirect sun. Mist the branches occasionally until the pussy willows appear.
    • If you wish to use your forced pussy willows in dried flower arrangements (see above), remove them from the water once the catkins have reached the stage that you prefer.