Pussy Willow Plant Profile

Branch of pussy willows growing outside.
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The furry catkins of pussy willows are one spring's earliest harbingers. If you have the proper conditions, you can grow this shrub in your yard. Proper pruning allows you to show off these plants with maximum impact in your landscape. Pussy willows are dioecious, with the male pussy willow trees producing catkins earlier than the female trees. and therefore being more highly prized. The catkins of males yield numerous tiny flowers full of pollen later in spring, and when the blooms reach this point they are not considered decorative for floral cuttings. The female catkins bear flowers of their own that receive the males' pollen via flies and bees. The oval leaves come out after the catkins.

  • Botanical Name: Salix discolor
  • Common Name: Pussy willow, glaucous willow
  • Plant Type: Deciduous shrub
  • Mature Size: 6 to 20 feet tall, spread 4 to 12 feet wide
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Soil Type: Loamy, rich
  • Soil pH: 6.8 to 7.2
  • Bloom Time: March to April
  • Flower Color: White with yellow stamens and greenish styles
  • Hardiness Zones: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
  • Native Area: North America wetlands
A branch of flowing Pussy willows (Salix) .
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Close-Up Of Pussy Willow In Vase
Elena Sirotkina / EyeEm / Getty Images

How to Grow Pussy Willows

Pussy willow trees are wetland plants in the wild. They will need plentiful water and are tolerant of poorly-drained locations in your yard, if you have such trouble spots. These trees have invasive roots, so plant them far away from septic tank fields, sewer lines, or water lines. Pussy willows can be kept more compact and shrub-like through proper pruning. In spring, they serve as specimen plants for the lawn, or you can use them for privacy screens or borders. 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.

Light

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

Soil

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

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. Water them once or twice a week if there is no natural rainfall.

Temperature and Humidity

Pussy willows will grow well in temperate conditions with cold winters as is typical in the Northern U.S. and Canada. They grow slower in hot climates. Pussy willows can tolerate humidity.

Fertilizer

Pussy willows can do well with 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 0.5 pounds of fertilizer for every 0.5 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 pussy willow.

Propagating Pussy Willows

Pussy willows root so readily that cut branches can simply be inserted into moist soil in summer. Roots will develop within a few weeks. To plant pussy willow trees:

  1. Locate a plant that will serve as the parent plant.
  2. 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.
  3. Insert the cut (bottom) end into the ground, with a few inches underground for stability and a couple of nodes (the little bumps along the branch) 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.

Varieties of Pussy Willows

  • Salix discolor: This is the American pussy willow, native to North America.
  • 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.

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. 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, this plant responds well to drastic pruning. You can prune it right down to the ground, and it will still come up again.

Winter is an excellent time in which to prune many plants, taking advantage of their dormancy. Plus, you can harvest the catkins from the pruned branches.

  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. 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.
  7. Branches of pussy willows that are already crossing should be removed. They shade each other, reducing the number of catkins.
  8. 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. 

    Harvesting

    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" (flower out 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. 

    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.