pussy willows

How To Grow and Care for The Pussy Willow (Salix caprea)

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The pussy willow is most famous for its catkin-covered branches produced in the late winter or early spring. These handsome plants can be very useful in the garden, especially in problem areas with saturated soils. Read on to learn how to grow and care for this attractive deciduous shrub or tree. 

What Is A Pussy Willow Plant?

The pussy willow, Salix caprea, is a large shrub or small deciduous tree of the Salicaceae family. This species is also commonly known as the goat willow, French pussy willow, European pussy willow, or great sallow.

These shrubs are native to central and western Asia, and Europe, where they grow in moist environments, like along riverbanks and near wetlands. They have an attractive rounded growth form and can grow to about 33ft (10m) tall and over 15ft (4.5m) wide.

This plant has leaves that are 1-5 inches (2.5-12.5cm) long and fairly broad for a willow. Larger leaves can reach about 3 inches (7.5cm) across. These plants are not usually known for their fall color but do sometimes put on a brief yellow display. 

Pussy Willow Flowers

Pussy willows are dioecious plants which means that separate plants have different sexes. Both male and female plants produce attractive, 1-3 inch (2.5-7.5cm) long fluffy flower clusters known as catkins. The male plants are, however, the showier of the two sexes and the most popular with gardeners.

Catkins are composed of numerous tiny flowers without petals. The catkins produced by female plants are green, whereas male catkins are greyish-pink, taking on a yellow color when pollen is produced. 

These bushes are very attractive when they flower in the late winter to early spring and are usually among the earliest plants in the garden to come out of dormancy. 

Similar Species

Salix caprea is not the only pussywillow, although it is the most popular species among gardeners. Some of the other useful species include:

American pussy willow – Salix discolor

This native species, which is also known as the glaucous willow, can be found growing wild in the northern states of the USA, through Canada, and into Alaska. It is a deciduous species that grows to about 20 feet (6m) tall. 

Rose-gold pussy willow – Salix gracilistyla

This species produces pinkish catkins. There is a popular form known as ‘Melanostachys’ that produces attractive black flowers. It is native to China, Korea, and Japan in Asia. 

How To Grow Pussy Willows

If fertilized, the seeds from female plants can be grown successfully. The key to success is to plant the seeds fresh after flowering in the late spring to mid-summer. They germinate quickly if planted under a thin layer of medium and kept moist.  

The easiest way to propagate new Salix plants is by cuttings. Take cuttings in the late fall and pot them over the winter. Those that show active growth in the spring can then be planted. Cuttings of 8 inches to a foot (0.2-0.3m) usually root easily if planted in the soil leaving only the top few inches exposed.  

Pussy willows plants grow best in neutral, sandy soil with a good amount of organic material mixed into it. Average garden soil is suitable for these plants, but it should be kept moist at all times since these plants are not drought tolerant.

These shrubs are adapted to grow in environments with plenty of water to the root zone and will require regular watering unless grown in a naturally moist environment. They can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4-8 and will grow best if planted in full sun, although they will also succeed in partial shade.

Care And Maintenance

Pussy willow shrubs are naturally large shrubs or small trees that can easily outgrow their allotted space in the garden if allowed. Regular pruning is advised to keep these plants at a manageable size and encourage attractive young growth and better flowering. 

These plants respond well to pruning and can be cut back hard to rejuvenate them when necessary. This can be done every year or left for 3 or 4 seasons, depending on the growth rate of your plant and how much space you have.  

Unfortunately, pussy willow trees are quite susceptible to a few pests, including wood-boring insects, scales, aphids, and lacebugs. They may also be affected by fungal diseases like leafspot and mildews.

Uses

Horticultural Uses

Pussy willows are very useful plants for marshy areas along streams and around ponds where other plants do not grow due to high soil moisture. The male plants make especially attractive specimens and provide interest very early in the season. 

They can also be grown in average moist garden conditions where they make a useful hedge if pruned heavily each year. These trees are also popular as bonsai specimens.  

Human Uses

The young branches with newly opened catkins are very popular in flower arrangements and can be forced in vases. Parts of these plants have been used medicinally as a painkiller due to the presence of a compound known as salicin. 

Wildlife Uses

Deer and browsing animals will happily feed on the foliage of this plant, so bear this in mind if they have access to your garden. These plants are visited by many butterflies and moths, and the male catkins provide a valuable source of pollen to bees. 

FAQs

Conclusion

Pussy willows are very attractive plants that are one of the few options for waterlogged areas in zones 4-8. They do need specific growing conditions and regular maintenance in the form of pruning. Unfortunately, they are also susceptible to a few pests and diseases.

References

References

Brickell, C. & Joyce, D. Pruning And Training: What, When, And How To Prune

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*image by kotin/depositphotos

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