Pussy Willows: The First Flowers of Spring!

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When gardeners think of the first flowers of spring, they often have some of the spring bulbs in mind: snowdrops (Galanthus), crocus (Crocus), winter aconite (Eranthis), etc. And there is no doubt they are early bloomers. But in many climates, they don’t even come close in bloom season to the earliest bloomers of all: the pussy willows. 

Japanese pink pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’). Photo: http://www.groupon.co.uk

Bulbs have to wait for the snow to melt in order to bloom, but pussy willows jump the gun: they’ll bloom right through the snow, as soon as the ground beneath has begun to thaw. Depending on where you live, they can be in bloom from January (in the mildest climates) to May (in the coldest regions). 

What is a Pussy Willow?

There is not one species of pussy willow, but many. 

Weeping French pussy willow (Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’). Photo: http://www.studiofmp.com

Any willow (Salix) with relatively large or striking furry flower clusters is likely to be considered a pussy willow. The “fur” is usually silvery to white hairs, likened to a kitten’s fur. This type of inflorescence is called a catkin, a word derived from old Dutch for kitten. Unlike most flowers, catkins have no petals. Their covering of dense hair is designed to protect delicate flowers from the cold and, inevitably, pussy willows come from cool to cold climates. 

Pussy willows are usually shrubs, some tall, some short, some ground-hugging. A few are even sizeable trees.

Male catkins covered in stamens on French pussy willow (Salix caprea). Photo: Kurt Stüber, Wikimedia Commons

Willows are dioecious (an annoying word with an excessive number of vowels) which simply means that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Now, I don’t want to sound sexist here, but male willows do make the prettiest catkins. Not only are they often larger than female flowers, but they tend to keep their oval shape (in many species, female catkins droop). Also, they never produce the fluffy floating willow fuzz full of tiny seeds that burst out of female flowers later in spring and seem instantly drawn to dark fabrics hung on your clothesline. Even more interesting, male flowers bear multiple yellow stamens (red or pink in some species) that positively make the catkin glow. 

Black pussy willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’). Photo; http://www.willowsvermont.com.

There is a downside to male willows, though: some people are allergic to their pollen. (Willows are nowhere near the list of top allergy causers, but still…)

Growing Pussy Willows

Pussy willows (here Salix discolor) are generally cold climate plants and many will bloom right through the snow. Photo: http://www.enews.tech

Pussy willows are generally cold-climate plants … and they really have to be to be appreciated. There’s something about a cold, snowy winter that really makes them stand out from the crowd. If winters where you live are balmy and warm, you have plants growing all year long anyway, so no need to read further*. But if your winters include endless days of frozen landscape, pussy willows will bloom for you: yes, in some cases, even north of the Arctic Circle.  

*There are willows that will grow in tropical climes (Humboldt’s willow, Salix humboldtiana, for example), but willows with showy catkins seem to be largely restricted to colder zones.

If you like weird, try the fantail willow (S. udensis ’Sekka’), popularly grown for use in dried flower arrangements. Photo: gardendrum.com

Willows are renowned for their love of moist soils and many grow in swamps, along rivers and lakes or other damp places, but most species adapt well to normal garden soils. And there are also dryland willows naturally adapted to less humid soils. Even so, you’ll want to keep your pussy willows moist until they are well-established.  

Sun is a must: willows just aren’t shade plants. Even partial shade will result in an open growth habit and stingy bloom. Fertilizer? Why bother! Pussy willows will find plenty of nutrients in just about any soil. And they’re not gluttons anyway (many grow naturally in almost pure sand). 

Cut willows to the ground after bloom to control their growth. Photo:http://www.theorganisedgardener.co.uk/

Taller pussy willows will grow into trees if you let them. Don’t. Pussy willow catkins need to be seen up close, not way up in some tall tree. And tree-size willows tend to have very long, very invasive roots. Willows that remain of a modest size, even if that size is due to pruning, will have a shorter root system that won’t go far. So, cut back bigger willows periodically, practically to the ground (a technique called coppicing): don’t worry, they’ll quickly grow back. If you prune right after they bloom, they’ll have time to produce new branches in time to bloom the following year.

Giant pussy willow (Salix x ‘Winter Glory’). Photo: springmeadownursery.com

Pussy willows are very popular for erosion control, as they produce copious roots and do so rapidly. Plus, many will grow with their roots mostly in water or are able to handle spring flooding. And willows can be used as hedges or, in the case of dwarf species, groundcovers. The more enterprising gardener will discover they can use willow stems in basketry or train pussy willows as wattle fences, arbors or tunnels. In northern areas, coppiced willows are often used to create living noise and snow barriers along highways.

You can purchase pussy willows, of course, but they are so simple to grow from cuttings, why waste your money? Spring, summer or fall, cut a 1 foot (30 cm) stem of the willow of your choice (get the owner’s permission, of course!) and stick it in the ground. Water well. It will be rooted and growing in no time. Some willow specialists will even sell you willow cuttings by mail.

Forcing Pussy Willows

Pussy willow branches are easy to force. Photo: http://www.etsy.com

You can force pussy willows into bloom well before they’d flower outdoors. To do so, wait until you see a slight swelling of the buds (usually by mid-January), then cut branches and bring them indoors. Place the stems in your bathtub and leave them to soak in warm water overnight (this will thaw them out gently), then place them upright in a vase of water in a cool, dark spot until the buds start to open. Then just move them to wherever you want: sun is not required. 

Forced pussy willows are an integral part of part of Palm Sunday and Easter celebrations in many cultures, notably Orthodox churches. Photo: http://www.stephenmorrisauthor.com

Drying Pussy Willows

Simple! Just harvest the stems when the catkins reach the stage you prefer (some people like them big and fluffy, others denser and smaller) and stand them in a vase without water. They’ll dry on their own and will keep for years.

Some Choice Species

There are dozens of species of pussy willows you can try. Here are a few:

American Pussy Willow (S. discolor). Big silvery catkins. H: 16–26 ft (5–8 m). D: 13 ft (4 m). Zones 2–8
Black Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’). Small black catkins, orange anthers. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 5–9
Blue Streak Willow (S. acutiflora ‘Blue Streak’). Silver gray catkins. Chalk blue stems. H: 15-30 ft (5-10 m). D: 7-15 ft (3-5 m). Zone 3b-8
Corkscrew Willow (S. babylonica pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’, sy. S. matsudana ‘Tortuosa’). Small white catkins, corkscrew branches. Popular in dried arrangements. 20–30 ft (6–9 m). D: 23–26 ft (7–8 m). Zones 5–8.
Fantail Willow (S. udensis ‘Sekka’). Silvery catkins; twisting, flattened stems. Popular in dried arrangements. H: 10–15 ft (3–5 m). D.: 10–20 ft (3–6 m). Zones 5–7.
French Pussy Willow (S. caprea). Large silvery-gray catkins. H: 20-30 ft (6–9 m). D: 16 ft (4 m). Zones 4b-9
Giant Pussy Willow (S. x ‘Winter Glory’, aka S. chaenomeloides). Huge silvery catkins up to 3 inches (7 cm) long, red stems. H: 20 ft (6 m). D: 13 ft (4 m). Zones 6–8
Japanese Pink Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’): Male variety with reddish pink catkins. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 4–9
Miyabe Willow (Salix miyabeana). Long grey catkins, reddish stems. H: 20-50 ft (6-15 m). D: 6 ft (2 m). Zones 4-8
Prairie Pussy Willow (S. humilis). Silvery catkins. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 10 ft (3 m). Zones 3–8
Red Pussy Willow (S. koriyanagi ‘Rubykins’). Tiny reddish catkins: H: 6 ft (1.8 m). D: 6 ft (1.8 m) Zones 4b-7
Rose-gold Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla). Gray catkin with a pink tinge, then golden. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 5–9
Violet Willow(S. daphnoides). Silver gray catkins. Violet stems. 15-30 ft (5-10 m). D: 7-15 ft (3-5 m). Zone 2b-8
Weeping French Pussy Willow (S. caprea ‘Kilmarnock’). Large silvery-gray catkins. Weeping habit. H: 3-6 ft (1-2 m). D: 3 ft (1 m). Zones 4b-9

Sources

It’s often possible to buy willow cuttings by mail. Here are some sources:

Canada*
Lakeshore Willows (mostly willows for basketry)

*Bluestem Willows, once the go-to source for all things willow in Canada, has closed, but its website is still an excellent source of information.

USA
Quackin’ Grass Nursery
Willows Vermont

Europe
Burncoose Nurseries
Pépinière Brochet-Lanvin


Pussy willows: harbingers of spring since the dawn of humankind!

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