Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
A wonderful springtime ritual that has been passed down for generations is cutting pussy willows and bringing them indoors. As a child, I loved the soft catkins. They felt like animal fur to me.
What Are Pussy Willows?
As their name implies, pussy willows (Salix discolor) are related to willows (Salix alba L.). They are a North American native plant and an important food source for birds, butterflies, beavers, muskrats, snowshoe hares and red squirrels. Deer also consider them a delicacy.
Pussy willows were important to Native Americans because they contain salicin like willows. Salicin is the source for salicylic acid which is the main ingredient in aspirin. It should come as no surprise that Native Americans used willows and pussy willows for pain relief.
Pussy willows are hardy in zones 4 through 8. They can grow to 20 feet tall or can be pruned to a smaller shrub. They prefer wet soil to grow in so if you have a rain garden or just a low, wet place in your yard, they will thrive there. They prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade.
The plants are either male or female. The difference is easy to spot. They start out looking the same, but the male catkins develop yellow pollen while the female catkins remain small and green. The pollen is transported from the male plants to the female plants by insects. It does not spread via the wind. The plants need insects to visit flowers and carry the pollen from the males to the females. Birds know this and like to hang around pussy willows waiting for insect pollinators to snack on.
How to Grow Pussy Willows
Pussy willows are ridiculously easy to grow. You just stick them in the ground. Really! Cut off a branch from an existing pussy willow tree or shrub. Make sure you cut a brown, actively growing branch rather than a gray, mature one that has finished growing. Your cutting should be as big around as a pencil and about 12 inches in length.
Stick the end of the cutting where you cut it from the parent in the ground where you want your bush to grow. Push it at least 3 inches into the ground so that it doesn’t become top heavy and fall over. Water it well for several weeks as the new roots grow and become established.
Give some thought to where you plant your pussy willow. They are invasive with very strong roots that can penetrate water lines, sewer lines or invade a septic field so plant them well away from any infrastructure on your property.
You can take advantage of pussy willows' tendency to spread by using them as a hedge or privacy screen. If you have a stream on your property, you can plant pussy willows on the banks to stabilize them and prevent erosion.
How to Prune Pussy Willows
Most gardeners prefer to keep their pussy willows as smaller, easier to manage shrubs. It’s a little difficult to harvest pretty branches from a 20 foot tree. To keep your pussy willow at a manageable size, you will need to prune it regularly. A good time is in the late winter when the plant is dormant and the leaves have not yet begun to grow. You can see the structure of the bush more easily. Begin by removing any dead or crossing branches. Then remove one third of the oldest branches. They are gray. New growth is brown. Trim the remaining older gray branches down to the height of the newer brown branches. And you’re finished. New growth will commence in the spring on both the remaining branches and from the bottom of the plants to replace the old stems that you pruned away.
How to Force Pussy Willows Indoors
If you would like to bring some spring into your home in the dead of winter, you can force pussy willow branches. In February (early or late depending on your growing zone), look for branches on your shrub that are showing buds that will become catkins.
Try to choose a day with an outdoor temperature that is above freezing. Cut as many branches as you want making sure that they are at least 2 feet long. Bring them indoors and plunge the cut ends into a vase or other container of warm water. Reach into the water, and keeping the stems submerged, cut one inch off of each stem. Doing it underwater keeps the cuts wet so that the branches will be able to take in water.
Wrap the upper ends of the branches in something wet like paper towels or newspaper or even old cloths to create a humid environment and place the vase somewhere cool and dark for a couple of days. Then remove the covering and place the vase in a cool (60⁰F - 65⁰F) room with indirect light. A north facing window works well. Mist your stems until the catkins appear.
How to Preserve Pussy Willows Indoors
An alternative way to enjoy pussy willows indoors is by drying them. Simply harvest the branches when the catkins have appeared and bring them indoors. Place them in an empty vase. They will naturally dry out but the catkins will remain soft and silvery for years of enjoyment.
You can also use this method to preserve pussy willows that you have forced. Simply remove the stems from the water after the catkins have appeared and allow them to dry.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do I treat a young pussy willow for the winter that has been outside growing in a pot since this spring?
Answer: Plant your pussy willow as soon as possible before the ground freezes. Leaving plants in containers over the winter is not recommended. The roots could freeze and kill the plants. By planting the pussy willow in the ground, the roots will be kept warm and alive in the soil over the winter.
Question: Can I grow pussy willows in a tropical country?
Answer: Unfortunately no. Pussy willows are only hardy through zone 8. Warmer growing zones are too hot in the summer and not cold enough in the winter. Pussy willows need a period of cold to complete their growing cycle.
© 2018 Caren White