Fan tail pussy willow

Garden News Blog

What Are Pussy Willows, Anyway?

By Ashley Gamell | March 3, 2017

At the tail end of winter, fuzzy nubs start to appear along the branches of pussy willows. These soft silver tufts—as well as the plant itself—are named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws, and they feel so much like fur that young children often wonder if they are animals instead of plants. What are those little nubs? Are they seeds? Fruits? And why are they fuzzy?

They’re actually flowers just before they fully bloom. The soft coating of hairs acts as insulation to protect these early bloomers from cold temperatures. The species most commonly called pussy willow in the Northeast, Salix discolor, is a small, shrubby species of willow that can be found dotting wetlands and moist woods throughout much of North America. Most other willows make similar flowers, and since they’re among the very first to bloom, they’re especially delightful—they signal the last throes of winter and the brink of spring.

Even in full bloom, willow flowers hardly look like flowers at all. They have no petals or showy colors. Nor do they have any fragrance. Such flowers are called catkins, also named for cats, in this case for their tails (from the old Dutch word for kitten katteken). Many other trees and shrubs, such as birch and beech, also produce catkins.

Catkins usually don’t rely on pollinators to spread their pollen. Instead they simply release it into the wind, where it may or may not land on the female flower parts. In order to hit their targets, the catkins must produce a tremendous amount of pollen. (Wind-pollinated trees like these are the culprits of many a spring sneeze.)

More: No need to wait for spring. Enjoy these beautiful buds right now.

Pussy willows have been cultivated to produce a range of different catkin colors. Over the next few weeks, a parade of these blossoms will be on display at the southern end of BBG—in the Discovery Garden, the newly opened Water Garden, and along the nearby brook. Look for the fantastical pink pompoms of the Japanese pink pussy willow, the creepy, gothic-looking black pussy willow, and the rose-gold pussy willow, whose blossoms seem to glow.

Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male plants and female plants. Only male plants produce the fuzzy flowers. Home gardeners may be disappointed if they wind up with a female tree, but the flowers on female plants are equally funky—they just look more like greenish hairy caterpillars. Look for both blooming over the coming season.

Try This at Home

Most cut pussy willow stems are in a sort of time warp—dried at their peak fuzziness, and never allowed to fully flower. But if you keep fresh-cut pussy willows hydrated, you can see the whole flowering cycle and even the leafing-out process. Buy a healthy-looking bunch (look for flexible, greenish stems that don’t feel brittle or look shriveled), and place in a vase near a window, changing the water daily. You can add a little flower food if you have some.

Watch for new flower buds to cast off the shiny brown bud scales that surround the flower. When the flowers mature, you will see scores of yellow stamens emerge to cover each catkin. A tiny clump of pollen stands at each end. Wait even longer, and you may also see pale green, strappy leaves unfurl from the leaf buds. At this point, your willow stems will be in full spring growth and will need to be planted in soil outdoors to root for an extended experiment. The flexible stems can also be woven into a wreath or recycled in the compost pile.

Ashley Gamell is is a freelance writer and consultant. After a decade on staff at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she now pens her posts from the Hudson Valley.

Growing A Pussy Willow Tree: Learn About The Care Of Pussy Willows

Few small trees or large shrubs are as easy to grow as the pussy willow (Salix discolor). When growing a pussy willow tree, you’ll find care of the small tree is minimal when it is planted in the right place. Learn where and how to plant a pussy willow tree and the ease in care of pussy willows.

Growing a Pussy Willow Tree

One of the first trees to break bud in late winter or early spring, learning how to grow pussy willows provides the garden with unique interest from the furry catkins, which are soon followed by whitish, yellow flowers, when much of the landscape still sleeps in dormancy.

For optimum results when learning how to grow pussy willows, pay attention to the location where it is planted. So where exactly is the right place for growing a pussy willow tree? When considering where and how to plant a pussy willow tree, remember that they like constant moisture and full to part sun. If there’s a boggy area in your landscape with room for roots to spread, plant it there.

When growing a pussy willow tree, you may have expensive problems that can be avoided if the tree is planted near water lines, sewer lines or septic tank fields. Pussy willows have deep spreading roots that can be considered invasive when planted in the wrong place. If you are unsure where the lines run in your landscape, contact the water or utility company before planting. They will come out and mark the lines before you plant – normally free of charge.

The deep spreading roots of the pussy willow make them a good choice for holding the soil on a hill and erosion control. This is possibly the most important function of the pussy willow.

Choose the type of pussy willow that will fit the area when mature. When growing a pussy willow tree, there are a variety of mature sizes available for planting. Don’t create unnecessary work for yourself in the care of pussy willows by planting in the wrong place.

Pruning Care of Pussy Willows

Pruning pussy willow is another aspect of its care. If your current specimen is too big for the space in which it grows, pussy willow care can include pollarding, a regular all-over pruning for the sake of size. Regular renewal pruning should become part of pussy willow care as well, regardless of where it grows.

The technique of coppice, severe renewal pruning, is often successfully used as part of pussy willow care too. Branches of the pussy willow are somewhat weak, so yearly pruning when flowers are spent encourages new growth for the next year.

Cutting branches for indoor display is an excellent use of catkins and flowers when growing a pussy willow tree. Cut branches with buds and place them in a tall vase in bright sunlight. You’ll be rewarded with indoor blooms before the outdoor tree breaks bud, in many cases.

Growing Pussy Willows

Pussy willows (salix discolor) are extremely easy to multiply. They root so easily that stems of almost any size can simply be stuck into a vase of water where they will form roots in just a few weeks.

They can then be potted into liner pots with moist soil for a few more weeks while their roots develop, or they can be planted directly into the ground in spring. The cutting must be set the right end up, as it originally grew.

Cuttings should be from new growth, at least as thick as a pencil, and a foot or more in length for direct sticking. And at least one or two buds must be above ground when the cutting is set.

Pussy willows grow well in almost any soil, but it is a good idea to supplement it with peat moss, leaf mold, or compost. They require full sun to thrive, but will survive in the shade as well. As with most willows, they do best when given lots of water.

Although they can be allowed to grow unpruned, the plant will benefit from regular pruning after blooming. Prune the lowest branches back to the trunk, and prune for shape. You can even cut the tree back to a 6-inch stump every two to three years; just remember that severe pruning results in longer stems and larger catkins. Flowers form on the previous season’s growth, not on new growth, so do not prune until after the flowers have faded.

For early blooming, cut branches of pussy willows may be brought in and set in a water-filled vase in a sunny window anytime after the middle of January. The catkins will develop and make a nice display for a considerable amount of time.

PUSSY WILLOW CRAFTS

The downy catkins of pussy willows are a great decorative element for DIY projects. Here are a few we love:

Pussy Willow Nest

Use wire and dried grasses — available at florists and garden centers — to transform pussy willows into a nest for decorative eggs. Add feathers for a more realistic look. Make sure your nest looks a tad irregular, to give it a more genuine appearance. Learn how to make an adorable pussy-willow nest in three steps by clicking here.

Pussy Willow Basket

A glass vase, sheet moss, floral wire, and pussy willow stems are all the materials you need to make a rustic pussy willow basket. This adorable, decorative DIY is a cinch to make in just two easy steps.

Pussy Willow Wreath and Balls

Feeling festive? These decorative crafts are so chic, it’s hard to tell they’re made with pussy willows. This project is for an intermediate DIYer, as plucking off the down catkins and using a hot-glue gun are required. You’ll need a wreath form and styrofoam balls — both available at craft stores like Michael’s — to complete this fun craft.

Resources

Martha has previously gotten pussy willow plants from Phil Mueller of Star Valley Flowers in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin. For more information, visit starvalleyflowers.com.

Japanese Fantail Willow, Dragon Willow ‘Sekka’

Category:

Shrubs

Water Requirements:

Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater

Requires consistently moist soil; do not let dry out between waterings

Sun Exposure:

Full Sun

Sun to Partial Shade

Foliage:

Grown for foliage

Deciduous

Foliage Color:

Unknown – Tell us

Height:

10-12 ft. (3-3.6 m)

12-15 ft. (3.6-4.7 m)

Spacing:

12-15 ft. (3.6-4.7 m)

15-20 ft. (4.7-6 m)

Hardiness:

USDA Zone 4a: to -34.4 °C (-30 °F)

USDA Zone 4b: to -31.6 °C (-25 °F)

USDA Zone 5a: to -28.8 °C (-20 °F)

USDA Zone 5b: to -26.1 °C (-15 °F)

USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)

USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)

USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)

USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)

Where to Grow:

Unknown – Tell us

Danger:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Color:

Pale Pink

Bloom Characteristics:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Size:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Time:

Late Winter/Early Spring

Other details:

Unknown – Tell us

Soil pH requirements:

Unknown – Tell us

Patent Information:

Unknown – Tell us

Propagation Methods:

From softwood cuttings

Seed Collecting:

Unknown – Tell us

Regional

This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:

Scarborough, Maine

Lincoln Park, Michigan

Barrington, New Hampshire

Ballston Lake, New York

Newfield, New York

Pleasant Garden, North Carolina

Yachats, Oregon

Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina

Wytheville, Virginia

Charleston, West Virginia

show all

Pussy Willows

Ask a gardening friend about willows and he or she will likely recall the large weeping types and all their charming if often dubious qualities. Though unquestionably graceful and picturesque at the edges of ponds and streams, these trees can grow over 70 feet tall and are notoriously weak-wooded and messy. The reputation of their moisture-seeking roots for breaching pipes and the foundations of houses is also, unfortunately, too true.

Look beyond these giants, however, and you’ll find another world of smaller, more manageable willows with brightly colored stems and leaves, unique forms and textures, and stunning catkins (the “pussies” of pussy willows).

If you’ve ever bought cut pussy willow stems from a florist to brighten the house in winter, you might enjoy growing your own for cutting at will. The catkins appear in late winter or very early spring and are easily forced into earlier bloom if brought into a warm house. And the color range is surprising: the catkins range from typical silver gray to soft pink. Some are even ebony black.

My own introduction to willows was born of laziness. I figured it would be a lot easier to choose plants that would thrive in the low, damp areas of my property than to raise or drain those areas. And because my garden is just 1/3 acre, I wanted plantings that would mature no larger than large shrubs or small trees. While I was thinking of willows primarily as a solution to planting in wet soil, I discovered many small tree and shrub forms that deserve a place of honor in the garden.

Willow flowers are tiny and come clustered in catkins. All willows are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either all-male or all-female catkins. The male catkins are usually finer-textured, and with their colorful stamens, are also much more ornamental.

Some Choice Willows

Florist’s pussy willow (Salix caprea), also known as French, goat, or pink willow; USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. The large gray catkins gradually yellow as they mature. Their appearance in late winter before the leaves is a cheering sight. Without pruning, these willows grow to 20 feet or more. They tolerate dry soil. ‘Weeping Sally’ is a graceful, pendulous form with arching branches, usually grafted to reach 6 to 8 feet in height; it looks lovely beside a small pond.

Japanese pussy willow (S. chaenomeloides), also called quince-leafed pussy willow; zones 5 through 8. This recent introduction is one of the best for winter cutting. Ray Prag, owner of Forestfarm nursery in Oregon, who grows more than 70 kinds of willows, says this one has the biggest catkins, up to 2-1/2 inches long. They’re silvery gray and take on a pink cast as they age. Equally significant, their bare winter stems are a rich mahogany red.

This willow was brought here from Korea in the 1980s by plant explorer Barry Yinger. It grows fast, to 20 feet in three years if left unpruned. Plant it where it has room and prune heavily in late winter before leaves emerge. Even when cut back annually, it often produces up to 9-foot stems!

Black pussy willow (S. gracilistyla melanostachys); zones 5 through 8. The anthers on the nearly black catkins turn yellow, producing a striking show that goes on for weeks. It is very finely branched, usually all the way to the ground, and never throws long simple stems like most pussy willows. This makes it impossible to display them in the same way. Instead, use fewer, shorter stems, perhaps mixed with other plants. Or use short, 8-inch sections in small vases. Leaves turn yellow before dropping, very late. Girth equals height, usually 6 to 10 feet. Considering its bronze-purple winter stems, this plant has little “down time.” Maintain black pussy willow with aggressive annual pruning as soon as catkins begin to drop and leaves are emerging.

Corkscrew willow (S. matsudana ‘Tortuosa’), also called dragon’s claw willow; zones 5 through 7. The branches of this 20- to 30-foot tree twist and turn every which way, and its catkins are prominent. Overall, this is one of the best for indoor decoration.

Fantail willow (S. udensis ‘Sekka’; formerly S. sachalinensis ‘Sekka’); zones 5 through 7. Its unusual twisted stems are broad and flattened at their ends, a genetic condition botanists know as fasciation. Look for a plant with a lot of these branches, as some plants are more heavily fasciated than others. The small, silvery catkins mature to a soft yellow, and are very numerous. I counted 50 clustered along 30 inches of branch. The long, dark green leaves turn yellow in fall, and the supple branches sway in every breeze.

Forcing indoors

The best time to cut branches for forcing is when the catkin buds are just beginning to swell. It will take 2 to 4 weeks from bringing the branches indoors before the catkins emerge.

With a sharp knife, scrape off 2 inches of bark above where the branch was cut and lightly crush the scraped area. This helps the branch take up water. Arrange the branches in an attractive deep container of room-temperature water and place in bright light.

How to Grow

Willows are not fussy plants. All prefer full sun, but most tolerate some shade. They uniformly prefer wet, even soggy soils, but most adapt just fine to dry soils, though supplemental irrigation may be required. Some, such as S. caprea, thrive in relatively barren soil and also tolerate salty seaside conditions. All willows are fast growing and short-lived, and their wood is notably weak and prone to breaking.

Occasionally, aphids, scale, and Japanese beetles are a problem, and powdery mildew and rust diseases also sometimes appear. In every case but the Japanese beetles, pruning to the ground in spring after flowering reduces or eliminates the pest. Even normal pruning will usually rejuvenate the plant. “Willows are so vigorous that these will rarely kill the plant,” says Ray Prag.

Most willows need pruning for two reasons: to maintain a convenient size and to stimulate growth of long stems for cutting. Heavy pruning (all the way to the ground) also stimulates more vigorous growth, which results in larger catkins. However desirable for the above reasons, heavy annual pruning may also produce a somewhat rangy-looking plant. If your willow is positioned in a prominent location, so that appearance is important, prune out a third of the oldest wood each year. Older wood is more susceptible to disease and pest problems. Prune just before the leaves come out, in late winter or early spring.

It’s easy to propagate willows by cuttings. Start with an 8-inch leafless section of stem in spring. Plant it in a 4-inch pot filled with moist potting soil, then place it in a cool, shaded location. As soon as roots emerge from the pot’s drainage hole, plant it in a permanent location or transplant to a larger container. Alternatively, you can plant willow cuttings directly in the ground in spring.

Patricia Acton writes and gardens by the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Photography by Kate Jerome

Last week, Ryan and Wilmer went down to the pussy willow grove to cut some branches for my spring arrangements. Pussy willows grow in almost any kind of moist soil and thrive best in full sun.
My pussy willows are located in a field behind my greenhouse, where there is lots of room for them to grow and flourish.
Pussy willow is a common name given to many smaller species of the genus, Salix, when their furry, velvety catkins are young. Salix discolor is the American pussy willow.
Pussy willow trunks can be either single or clustered with flexible branches and branchlets. Wilmer is able to cut these branches without using a ladder.
Ryan carries the first of several bunches to the side before going back to cut more. I always like to have lots and lots of pussy willows for my arrangements.
Pussy willow is common throughout the southern half of Canada and the north-central and northeastern portions of the United States.
Some pussy willows have very large, furry catkins.
While other pussy willow varieties have smaller catkins.
Here’s Wilmer with another bunch of branches. Pruning makes picking reachable and quick to pick.
Although they can be allowed to grow unpruned, pussy willow will benefit from regular pruning after blooming.
Pussy willows are very easy to propagate. And, while they don’t take up a lot of space to grow, their roots can be quite invasive, so don’t plant them near water lines or septic systems.
Pussy willows root so easily that stems of almost any size can simply be stuck into a vase of water, where they will form roots in just a few weeks.
After cutting enough to fit the back of the Polaris, they were ready to be transported to the house.
Here’s Ryan making sure he didn’t miss any more good branches filled with catkins. If you grow pussy willows, heavy pruning is also necessary to keep them strong and nicely shaped.
Wilmer works from the other side of the grove and checks to make sure he also picked the best pussy willows.
Ryan and Wilmer drove all the pussy willows to my carport and began separating them by type.
Each bunch was then tied in a bundle using jute twine.
Sometimes I like to keep the arrangements tied in the container. Since the branches are quite long, Ryan and Wilmer secured each bundle in two or three spots.
Here is a closer look at the pussy willow branches with their large velvety catkins that always create bold displays.
This unusual willow is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, or Fantail Willow. It has a unique, flattened form, rich color, and small catkins.
This is Purple Heirloom. It has attractive blonde bark, thin grassy stems, and lots of small dark purple catkins.
All the bundles are set in dry buckets and then placed in the back of the carport near my Flower Room.
Cutting branches for indoor displays is an excellent use of these pussy willow catkins. I am looking forward to making pretty arrangements – they will look gorgeous in my Brown Room.

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