Pussy Willows: Exactly How to Care For This Beautiful Plant

Pussy Willow

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Ah, the pussy willow. The perfect addition to your ornamental garden! They’re one of the first plants to bloom in spring, making them a top pick for many gardeners. Its flowers, or “catkins”, are fluffy little blooms which resemble tiny little cats.

The Chinese use pussy willows as a decoration during part of the lunar new year. It’s believed to bring prosperity for the coming year. It’s also a popular Easter decoration.

But what exactly is this plant? Is it a tree or a shrub? How does it grow, and how can you maintain it?

Let’s dive into the history of this willow-tree relative. In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know to grow your own pussywillow in your yard!

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Pussy Willow Overview

Common Name(s)Pussy willow, glaucous willow, goat willow, great sallow, grey willow, large grey willow, grey sallow
Scientific NameSalix discolor, Salix cinerea, Salix caprea
FamilySalicaceae
Height and SpreadDepending on type, anywhere from 6 feet to a maximum of 48 feet
LightFull sun
WaterLots of water, prefers consistently moist soil
SoilWell-draining to boggy, as long as it’s consistently moist
FertilizerNone required but compost or leaf-mold, but can use balanced fertilizer if desired
Pests and DiseasesAphids, scale insects, caterpillars, imported willow leaf beetle, bacterial twig blight, leaf blight, leaf spot, powdery mildew, rust

All About the Pussy Willow

Each of the 6 species of pussy willow trees we discuss here has its own origins. Some have origins in the eastern coast of North America. Some are native to Europe and western Asia. Still, others hail from Central Asia. All are deciduous.

Pussy willow trees tend to be dioecious, with male and female parts on separate trees. The male plants produce the fuzzy catkins that give these trees their name. While you only need a male plant to enjoy the flowers, you’ll need female plants as well to produce viable seeds through wind pollination.

The common name of these plants may have originated in an old folk tale. The story goes that kittens playing along a riverbank fell in, and the willow trees reached into the water to save them. Thus, the development of pussy willow trees.

The highly important medicine, aspirin is developed from willow species. Some gardeners swear by the use of aspirin for plants, but there’s a lot of debate around that topic.

Pussy Willow Varieties

While it’s definitely a relative of the willow family, it often grows more as a shrub. Older specimens do become trees, but they tend to have weaker branches that don’t support much weight.

Pussy willows produce prodigious amounts of nectar and pollen. This nectar and pollen supports local populations of beneficial insects and other wildlife. In some areas, as much as ten percent of the beneficial insect population lives on the produce of this plant!

There are three different Salix species called “pussy willows.” Let’s go over them now.

Salix discolor, ‘American Pussy Willow’, ‘Glaucous Willow’

Salix discolor buds opening
Salix discolor buds just beginning to open. Source: nègFoto
 
The American pussy willow is most common in the northern parts of the United States and up into Canada. But, it can be grown throughout the US.
 
Salix discolor produces a reddish bud which slowly develops into a silvery-white furry catkin. As the catkin begins to flower, it will either yellow into a male blossom or remain white and fluffy as a female blossom.
 
Salix discolor can reach heights of up to 20 feet, but it’s often much smaller, especially in dryer areas of the country. Plants in warmer climate regions often do not reach much taller than 6-8 feet in height.

Salix caprea, ‘Goat Willow’, ‘Pussy Willow’, ‘Great Sallow’

Salix caprea
Salix caprea catkins in full flower. Source: anro0002

The blossoms of Salix caprea, the goat willow, begin also as small white catkins. The catkins are slightly larger than the American pussy willow. Over time, goat willow catkins mature into much larger blossoms with long tendril-like flowers. Male flowers have a bright yellow coloration due to their pollen. Female flowers tend towards a greenish tint.

Goat willow may have gotten its name from being a browse fodder for goats. This smallish tree rarely grows much taller than 18-33 feet in height. In fact, it tends towards more of a dwarf habit. Not as small as Salix discolor, it can become a stunning ornamental tree in cooler climates.

Pro Tip: There’s a sub-variety of the goat willow, Salix caprea pendula. It’s also called the weeping pussy willow due to its arched branches that droop downwards. Try it out if you want to add some unique beauty to your garden!

Salix cinerea, ‘Grey Willow’, ‘Large Grey Willow’, ‘Grey Sallow’

Salix cinerea
Salix cinerea. Source: anro0002

The largest of the varieties, Salix cinerea can grow to heights of up to 49 feet as an older tree. It tends towards a brushy habit, creating stands of willow stalks that average 13-18 feet in height.

The male flowers are also a deep yellow due to pollen distribution. Female blossoms are greenish-grey in hue. They mature to produce seeds that get carried away by the wind.

Catkin distribution on Salix cinerea tends to be cluster at the tips of branches. Leaf buds form along the branches as well. They usually have a single flower around which large leaves form.

Pussy Willow Care

The most complicated part of caring for this gorgeous plant is ensuring that there’s plenty of water, as they’re water-loving plants. But let’s go over the most important aspects to ensure you get a lush and healthy plant!

Light and Temperature

These shrubs and trees are full-sun plants. They can tolerate some partial shade as well, especially in warmer climates. They are hardy to USDA zones 7 and 8, though they’ll survive anywhere you don’t have terribly cold winters.

Pussy willows thrive in temperatures between 60° and 65° F (16° to 18° C), and can easily withstand temperatures down to 35° F (2° C). High temperatures are no problem for established trees.

Water and Humidity

The Salix species that comprise pussy willows prefer wet soil. They can easily handle boggy conditions. If the soil is too well-draining, their growth will be stunted. Further, they will help balance the wetter environment by drinking up the water and storing it for later use. They can be drought-tolerant for short periods of time.

Be sure you plant them far away from septic tanks, sewer lines, and water lines. Their roots grow very deep and will bore through pipe walls! They love to grow along creek lines, rivers, and riparian areas. Humidity is great for pussy willow trees.

Soil

While we recommend well-draining soil for most plants, pussy willows don’t need it. They do have wide-spreading roots, so soil that is very clay-like may cause the plants to grow slowly. This may be preferable for those planting in smaller areas.

For faster growth, the best choice of soil is one that is:

  • rich and fertile
  • easy to penetrate with a large root mass
  • filled with lots of organic material to hold water

Use the above guidelines to develop soil for container-grown trees. Pussy willows can grow in sandy soil, but they often don’t grow as large as they could in richer soil conditions. It all depends on the amount of water they have.

In parts of the northeastern United States, they grow along river banks or in areas with standing water…sandy soil or not. To keep your soil moist, spread 2-4″ of mulch around your pussy willow.

Fertilizer

If you’re growing yours in a container, you’ll need to fertilize it. Either a balanced liquid fertilizer or a granular fertilizer will work. If you’re using a granular fertilizer, sprinkle it away from the trunk towards the edge of your container. If you’re using a liquid fertilizer, apply it beside the trunk.

When planting in the ground, you don’t need to fertilize. Its roots will extend quite a ways out and find better soil. Regular applications of compost or leaf mold mulch spread out around the base is about all it’ll need to thrive.

Adding your compost is simple: spread a thick layer from the trunk to about 3′ from the trunk. Over time, it provides vital nutrients to your plant’s roots. If you don’t want your tree to get out of hand, avoid fertilizing.

Propagation

Salix discolor leaf closeup
A closeup of Salix discolor leaves with unopened catkins. Source: Lorin Nielsen

You can propagate by cuttings or via seed distribution. To propagate by cuttings:

  1. Take cuttings of the new growth in early spring.
  2. Select branches that are long enough to take a 12-18″ long cutting from.
  3. Cut at a 45° angle
  4. If there are leaves on the branch, remove all but about 6″ of the top end’s worth of leaves

You can either wait for roots to develop or plant straight in the soil. If you wish to develop roots, place your cutting into a container of water. Change the water every few days. It can take a couple weeks for roots to begin to form.

When direct-planting, dip the cut end into some rooting hormone and place at least 4″ of the cutting underground for stability. Water often. Roots should develop within a couple weeks.

Seeds form in the female catkins. When they are ready, the catkins will begin to release their seeds still attached to some of the white fluff.

To collect them, place a paper bag over the branch and shake it to drop viable seed into the bag. When you plant them, do so with their fluff still attached.

Pruning

Salix discolor budding branches
Salix discolor after a fall coppice pruning, as the spring catkins are forming. Source: Lorin Nielsen

If you want long, straight stalks for use in floral arrangements, choose coppice pruning. In this style of pruning, you take the entire plant off at 6-12″ off the ground, leaving just the trunk in place.

As new shoots form, they will become long, straight stalks. You can train them to form a living arch by adding rigid wire or framing. Or, you can harvest them for flower arrangements!

Shape pruning encourages your plant to form more dense growth. To shape prune, completely remove dead branches and trim older branches back by a third. Once your older plant material is trimmed to shape, snip back any young branches that jut out from the desired shape. Over time, you will develop a much denser plant in either a shrub or small tree form.

Repotting

It’s difficult to grow pussy willows in a pot as they become older. Growing in pots is usually used for starting young plants. The wide, dense, and spreading root mass often causes them to get root bound in pots.

If you’re repotting cuttings that you have rooted into a pot, double the size of your pot with each repotting. Try to separate the root mass when you repot. If they have become rootbound, this may be difficult to do, but it’s necessary for the health of the plant.

For larger plants, transplant them into the soil so that their roots can continue to spread. This will ensure the best likelihood of a healthy plant.

It’s possible to train pussy willows to grow as bonsai, but they rarely last as long as other miniaturized plants. You can encourage healthy bonsai growth by regularly trimming your plants and using a pot which is wider than the top of your desired plant size. But, Salix bonsai can be tricky to maintain, so I do not recommend them for beginners.

Troubleshooting

Salix discolor unopened buds
Salix discolor branches with unopened catkins. Source: Lorin Nielsen

Pussy willows are a resilient plant, even in growing environments which seem hostile. That said, there are still a few things to watch out for when growing these plants. Whether you’re encouraging shrubby, low growth or trying to develop a tree, here are a few issues you might encounter.

Growing Problems

While many people never have to fertilize their pussy willows, occasionally there can be nutrient imbalances in the soil. You will see the classic signs of those. For example, in the photo in the “pruning” segment above, you can see one very yellowed leaf that appears to have burned edges.

That’s a common sign of a phosphorous deficiency that’s easy to repair. If you start seeing signs of nutrient deficiency and haven’t been fertilizing, add extra nutrients to the soil.

Trying to grow longer stalks requires more nitrogen to spur plant growth. If you’re trying to grow long stalks to harvest, you should add some extra nitrogen in the fall to encourage early development.

In the late winter months, the often-fragile branches can crack and break under the weight of ice and snow. It’s a good idea to go knock heavy snow buildup off your pussy willows before it can injure your plant. The constant freezing and thawing can create cracks in the wood. Remove affected branches once the frost cycle ends to avoid disease or insect infestation.

Pests

Before we get into the more typical pests, I feel it’s important to note that these plants are an important dietary component for a whole host of wildlife. Deer eat the leaves and branches. Squirrels eat the leaves. Some varieties of muskrat and beaver also consume leaves and branches of this shrublike plant. It’s not likely to be a problem in urban areas, but if you’re in a rural area, it’s good to know!

Aphids and scale insects can be problematic for pussy willow. Both can be eliminated by regular applications of neem oil on the leaves and branches. Pyrethrin sprays can also be effective.

Both beneficial and pestilent caterpillars find pussy willows to be a good home. While you may discover many butterfly pupae hanging from the branches, you may also discover the larvae of a number of moths, munching away.

Bacillus thurigiensis, also known as BT spray, can be used to eliminate caterpillars from your plant. However, this bacteria does not discriminate between pest caterpillars and friendly ones, so be sure you don’t have butterflies before using this!

The imported willow leaf beetle, Plagiodera versicolora, causes skeletonization of leaves in its larval form. The adult form can leave large holes in leaves. Eliminate this beetle using BT, but the same caution holds true as above.

Diseases

There are a bunch of diseases that can cause major damage to your pussy willows. Here’s a short list, along with some ways to treat them.In bacterial twig blight, darker stripes along the branches can be seen, and it can cause cankers on branches and the trunk.

Leaf blight causes the wilting and dropping of leaves. This causes the plant to become unable to photosynthesize. Remove any blight-stricken foliage or branches, disposing of them. A copper fungicide can be effective at treating these fungal infections.

You can treat leaf spot with the use of copper fungicidal agents. This is typically caused by anthracnose fungi, and is related to leaf blight.

Powdery mildew is a less-damaging problem and is treatable. You can use neem oil or copper fungicides to eliminate this issue as well.

Some forms of rust fungus can impact your pussy willow. Rust will cause orange or red blistering on the underside of leaves. Removal and destruction of the infected material usually works to eliminate this problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Salix discolor bundles
Salix discolor bundles, harvested for drying. Source: Robert Couse-Baker

Q: What can you do with the branches?

A: Often, they’re used as part of flower arrangements, both fresh and dried. If you cut them right after the catkins have opened, and allow them to dry out, the fuzzy catkins will remain in place. The stems will turn a uniform shade of brown, making them a striking addition to dry arrangements.

In fresh arrangements, the catkins will continue to develop into full flowers as the stalks will still have access to water. These fluffy blossoms are often used as part of Chinese New Year celebrations, tied together in clusters with red felt. As they will develop roots in water, it is possible to use them as a fresh arrangement and then plant them later!

Q: What’s the best way to dry branches for arrangements?

A: The easiest way to dry your pussy willow branches while maintaining the small, newly-opened catkins is to display them. Cut your branches right after the catkins have opened and place them into a dry vase, or bundle them as shown above. Allow them to dry out while on display!

Q: Is there really a pink-colored variety?

A: Well, yes and no. There are images available online of a brilliantly pink pussy willow. But they’re usually dried branches that have had the catkins dyed.

There IS one plant that does produce pink-colored catkins. Native to the temperate regions of Asia (especially Japan), Salix chaenomeloides does produce pink-hued catkins. It’s rare enough in the United States that I did not mention it as one of the most likely varieties, it is rapidly gaining popularity via imported plants. It can be hard to come by, but for the color of the catkins, it may be worth it!

Q: Are there any other uses I should know about?

A: As with all willows, pussy willow bark and leaves contain salicin. Used widely by tribes for painkillers, salicin was eventually developed chemically by the medical industry and became a primary component of a very common medication: aspirin. As with any sort of medication, it’s best to see your doctor before use, especially when dealing with a natural product.

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