How to Grow Pussy Willow

pussy willow tree

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Pussy willow is the name given to smaller species in the Salix genus when the furry catkins appear in early spring. The North American native plant Salix discolor, a deciduous shrub, is the most common species, though the 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. Though most often found in wild wetland areas, 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.

Pussy willows grow quite fast and will spread quickly. Simply sticking a pussy willow branch into the soil will produce a fully developed adult plant in a matter of weeks.

Botanical Name Salix discolor
Common Name Pussy willow, glaucous willow
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 6–25 feet tall, 4–15 feet in spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Loamy, rich
Soil pH 6.8–7.2
Bloom Time March to April
Flower Color White with yellow stamens and greenish styles
Hardiness Zones 2–7 (USDA)
Native Area Canadian and North American wetlands
Toxicity Non-toxic
closeup of pussy willow

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

pussy willow branches

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

pussy willow tree

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Pussy Willow Care

Pussy willow trees are wetland plants in the wild. They will need plenty of water and are therefore a good choice for any 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. Pussy willows also prefer alkaline soil.

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 heavily once or twice a week if there is no 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 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 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.

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. 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; transplant outside when the danger of frost is past.

Varieties of Pussy Willow

  • 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.
  • 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. 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. An annual pruning routine for pussy willows follows this sequence:

  1. Each spring, harvest the tops of branches bearing catkins.
  2. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Harvesting

Preserving pussy willows for dried flower arrangements 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. 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 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 (you'll just be hastening their arrival). 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 or are available.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 willows appear.

After successfully forcing them, you may want to preserve them, as well, for use in dried flower arrangements.

Common Pests and 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.