Pussy Willows: Exactly How to Care For This Beautiful Plant

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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 the pussy willow? 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, pussywillow, American pussy willow, glaucous willow, goat willow, great sallow, grey willow, large grey willow, grey sallow
Scientific Name Salix discolor, Salix cinerea, Salix caprea
Family Salicaceae
Origin Some species in North America. Others in Europe, Asia, northern African continent.
Height Depending on type, anywhere from 6 feet to a maximum of 48 feet
Light Full sun
Water Lots of water, prefers consistently moist soil
Temperature Moderate climate. Can handle cold winters well. May grow slowly in hot climates.
Humidity Can tolerate humidity
Soil Well-draining to boggy, as long as it’s consistently moist
Fertilizer None required but compost or leaf-mold, but can use balanced fertilizer if desired
Propagation Cuttings or by seed
Pests Aphids, scale insects, caterpillars, imported willow leaf beetle. Also susceptible to some fungal infections like bacterial twig blight, leaf blight, leaf spot, powdery mildew, and rust. Branches can crack during winter freeze/thaw cycles.

Types Of Pussy Willow

While the pussy willow is 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 the pussy willow!

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 pussy willow 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 your pussy willow is going to be 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

Pussy willow shrubs and trees are full-sun plants. They can tolerate some partial shade as well, especially in warmer climates.

Water

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 your pussy willows are far away from septic tanks, sewer lines, and water lines. Their roots grow very deep and will bore through pipe walls!

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.

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

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, pussywillows grow along river banks or in areas with standing water…sandy soil or not.

Pro Tip: To keep your soil moist, spread 2-4″ of mulch around your pussy willow.

Fertilizer

If you’re growing your pussy willow in a container, you’ll need to fertilize it. Either a balanced liquid fertilizer or a granular fertilizer will work.

If using a granular fertilizer: Sprinkle it away from the trunk towards the edge of your container.

If using a liquid fertilizer: Apply beside the trunk.

When planting a pussy willow 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.

Propagation

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

You can propagate pussy willow by cuttings or via seed distribution.

Propagating by Cuttings

  1. Take cuttings of the new growth in 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.

Propagating by Seeds

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

There are two options for pruning pussy willows: coppice pruning or shape pruning.

Coppice Pruning Pussy Willows

If you want long, straight pussy willow 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 Pussy Willows

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 pussy willows in pots is usually used for starting young plants. The wide, dense, and spreading root mass often causes pussy willows to get root bound in pots.

If 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.

Problems

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 of pussy willow 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 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.

Cold Weather Tip: 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 pussy willow is 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 of the pussy willow. Pyrethrin sprays like Safer Brand Yard & Garden Spray 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, 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. This beetle can be eliminated 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.

Bacterial twig blight

In bacterial twig blight, darker stripes along the branches can be seen, and it can cause cankers on branches and the trunk.

Leaf blight

Leaf blight causes the wilting and dropping of leaves. It can also cause 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 also 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 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 pussy willow 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: Best way to dry pussy willow 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 pussy willow?

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 for pussy willows?

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. But it’s a traditional medicinal use for both pussy willow and most other willow species!


Are you ready to plant this gorgeous ornamental? I know I am! The fluffy little catkins make it well worth the effort. Once it leafs out after blossoming, it creates rich green foliage.

Have you grown pussy willows before? What’s your favorite variety? Tell me in the comments!


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:


Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

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10 thoughts on “Pussy Willows: Exactly How to Care For This Beautiful Plant”

  1. Hi. I’m thinking of getting some cut pussy willow branches as display. I have been told that i should place them in a vase with water. Can I place them in a vase with no water instead to dry them out? I’m hoping the branches and the flowers will last up to 4-5weeks. Or would they die out very quickly with no water?

    • It’s been my experience that the tender buds on pussy willows tend to dry up quickly once the branch doesn’t have access to water.

      If you’re hoping to keep them going for a month or more, I would recommend using water. You may be able to pick up some of the floristry vials that they use in displays at a craft store if the vase you want to use isn’t water-tight. Those slide onto the end of the branches or on flower stems, and they hold a small amount of water or nutrient solution while preventing it from spilling out.

      If you do that, I recommend putting a piece of styrofoam or florist’s clay inside the bottom of the vase and pressing the vial-tipped ends of the branches into that. You should change the water in those vials every few days or refill them when they run low. That should keep the buds soft for a bit longer. But I don’t know exactly how long they’ll last.

  2. Hello. I have a salix pussy willow i started from a trimming in a pot. I cannot plant it in ground yet (I’m a renter) and I would like to know the best care for it during the winter months. I live in the Mid Atlantic region. Is it better to bring it inside, or can it be left outside if wrapped in plant netting if it’s not too cold? Do you have any other suggestions? Thank you!

    • That’s a difficult question to answer. Pussy willow tends to grow best in zones 4-9, so you’re in the right growing region. However, Salix-species plants tend to survive the colder months by putting down deep roots well below the freeze line, and my biggest concern is that your pot and its soil may actually freeze over and cause root damage.

      If your plant is less than a year old, I’d bring it in this winter just to be on the safe side. Older plants in larger pots may survive with plant netting outdoors, but you’ll still want to be sure that the soil temperature stays above freezing where the plant’s taproot is if at all possible.

      Assuming that you won’t be able to plant it directly in the ground for a while yet, I’d probably err on the safe side when overwintering in subsequent years and bring it in during the harshest freeze conditions. Be sure to regularly check to make sure it doesn’t get too root-bound and repot when necessary, or else you’ll have another difficulty when you finally do go to plant it in the soil!

  3. I planted my pussy willow directly over a lateral septic line ( gravel bed underground). It is 8 10 10 feet away from my septic tank. I am concerned , since it is growing a such a fast rate, that the root system could clog my lateral line or get into the septic tank. What are you thoughts. Is there a way of knowing how far the roots go beyond the bush’s drip line, or will they go a long way aand get into my septic tank?
    Thank you

    • Unfortunately, like most Salix species, pussy willows are notorious for getting into pipes. While they tend to be smaller overall than a standard willow tree, my biggest concern is that you put it directly on top of the septic line. It’s quite likely in that placement that it’ll become a problem.

      Even with the slowest-growing, shallowest root system species, it’s best to plant trees or large shrubs a minimum of 10 feet away from a septic system or line. And Salix species tend not to be slow-growing or shallow roots — they tend to put down very deep tap roots. If you can, I highly recommend moving your pussy willow away from your lines and septic system.

    • As someone in the process of replacing a sewer lateral, I would urge you (based on the article above) to re-locate your pussy willow. You will save yourself a bundle of headaches and expense later on. When you start having plumbing problems, you will have to pay someone to insert a video camera into your sewer line to take a video of what’s happening down there ($250); then, if the roots have not burst the sewer lateral (depends on how old it is and what it’s made of — e.g., clay) you will have to pay to have someone grind out the roots. This can’t be good for either the plant or your wallet. If the sewer line is damaged beyond repair and needs to be replaced, that’s an even larger expense. In addition to the cost of the video, I had to pay the public works department $85 to “review” the video, and I now have an *estimate* of over $5,000 for a 40′ lateral replacement. That doesn’t include the extra post-replacement cost of repairing the sidewalk, which sank and cracked due to the leaking sewer line. I haven’t gotten an estimate for that yet. There’s a large tree next to the sewer line, although, in my case, the cause of the cracked sewer line is the age of the clay pipes and not root intrusion from the tree. Still — a cautionary tale for you, unless you have limitless time and $$ to deal with the problem later.

      I’m about to plant my potted (overgrown) pussy willow somewhere on my property to memorialize my beloved departed kitties, and I surely do appreciate the information in this article. It will be a challenge, since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am about to transition my front and back yard to native plants after 7 years of drought. This willow is not native and may not adjust well to the drought/flood cycles of late (climate change! ack!); but I’m making an exception to memorialize the feline members of my family.

  4. I have a salix cap rea that has self set in my garden. How can I maintain it to a certain height so it doesn’t grow too big pls.

  5. Excelente información
    Tuvimos un pussy willow, gato angors en nuestra anterior vivienda
    Hoy quiero hacer un nuevo árbol
    Gracias por tan importante consejos sobre su desarrollo

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