Pussy Willows


Spring slips in on little catkin feet.

shrubs most of the year. Yes, their leaves are a pretty blue-green, and their branches do sway gracefully in the breeze. But with so many more-assertive plants to catch the eye, well, the rather plain pussy willow is easy to overlook--until February, when we're starved for any sign of life in the garden. Then this humble shrub becomes as treasured as the rarest tree peony. Sure, you can buy bunches of pussy willow branches from florists' shops and at flower shows. But by growing your own pussy willow shurb, you can harvest armloads of stems--for free.

The Salix species that produce ornamental catkins (where a willow's flowers develop) are known as shrub willows, or sallows, and are very easy to grow. Goat willow (S. caprea), also known as French pussy willow, has male catkins that are silvery gray and turn yellow in flower (SOURCE: 1). Japanese pussy willow (S. chaenomeloides) is similar in overall appearance to goat willow, but its catkins grow larger than goat willow's--up to 2 1/2 inches long. The anthers become dark orange, then turn to yellow (SOURCES: 1, 2, 3).

While these plants prefer full sun and moist soil, they adapt to a variety of conditions. Energetic growers, they can handle heavy pruning. Their muted green leaves on long stems provide a neutral backdrop for more-colorful perennials. And, of course, the silky catkins give us a touch of spring when we need it most.

Salix is the Latin word for willow. It comes from the Celtic word sallis: sal for near and lis for water. All willows prefer a steady supply of moisture. Willow species have been around for millions of years, and there are only a few places on earth where you won't find them. The 400 species and 200 hybrids come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes. Some are the large weeping willow trees often seen in cemeteries or growing on the banks of streams. Others grow as dwarf groundcovers in the Arctic. In size, shrub willows fall between these two types; the tallest tops out at about 26 feet. Humans have relied on willows through the centuries for baskets, furniture, and salicin, the compound from which aspirin is derived.

Pussy willows, like all willows, are either male or female. When the furry catkins first appear, it's difficult to tell the difference between the two. But as the pollen grains develop, each anther (the pollen-bearing portion of the stamen, the male flower's sex organ) changes color, depending on the species, from gray or black to red, dark gold, or bright yellow. For this reason, male catkins are preferred for decorative cuttings. The catkins of a shrub willow appear before the leaves.

Honeybees are the chief pollinators of willows. The fragrance of a shrub in flower draws them from their hives on warm late-winter days.

Shrub willows are adaptable to a variety of growing conditions, even thriving where the ground is compacted. They do best in moist (but not waterlogged) soil with a slightly acid pH, about 6.5. Alkaline soil should be avoided for planting. Fertile soil rewards with lush growth, although a shrub willow can do perfectly well in infertile soil. All willows prefer full sun, but shrub willows also tolerate partial shade. To best show off the catkins, choose a site where they will be backlit by the sun. Pussy willows need a period of cold to set buds, so unfortunately, they won't do well south of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 or 8.

Plant Salix shrubs as you would any other: Dig a hole twice the diameter of the rootball and to the depth of the container. Place the shrub into the hole and backfill, watering once when the hole is half-filled and again once all the soil has been replaced. Do not amend the soil, as this only encourages the roots to remain in the rich soil in the hole instead of spreading out. Mulch with 1 to 2 inches of compost.

A number of insect pests, including aphids, willow beetles, and caterpillars, like to munch on the leaves of pussy willows, but the shrubs grow so vigorously that they rarely suffer permanent damage.

A yearly pruning is about all the care pussy willows require. They are fast growers, and in one season their branches can grow long enough to be a nuisance. Prune out a third of the oldest wood to shape them. If you prune when the catkins are emerging, you'll have plenty of stems for decorating, and the plant will throw new branches later in spring. Shrub willows can stand hard pruning about every third year. For the best catkin production and to control the shrub's freewheeling growth habit, cut branches back to the main trunk.

An annual application of 1 to 2 inches of compost will help keep the soil, and therefore the plant, healthy and nourished. Don't dig the compost in, however, because a willow's root system is shallow and may be damaged by cultivation.

Pussy willow branches can be forced even earlier in winter than forsythias', and you can extend the show by bringing new branches inside every week. Start cutting in mid-February in Zones 7 and 8. In colder areas, add a week for each zone. To force, cut the stems when you see the brown bud scales begin to swell. Bring them inside and keep them out of direct sunlight. If you put the stems in water, the catkins will "flower" by changing colors as the anthers mature and pollen develops. The branches will then leaf out. If you want to keep catkins at the gray furry stage indefinitely, wait until they have emerged before cutting; then keep them in a vase without water.
Black Pussy Willow

Mention pussy willows, and most gardeners think of graceful branches studded with silver-gray catkins. But the most spectacular and unusual of all shrub willows is Salix gracilistyla 'Melanostachys'--the black pussy willow, Its dramatic catkins start out a deep black-brown and change to red and then yellow as they mature. The purplish brown branches are held upright and can grow to 10 feet, with an equal spread, The leaves are a brighter green than those of most shrub willows, and turn an attractive yellow in fall, Black pussy willows thrive in Zones 5 to 7 and have the same cultural requirements as other shrub willows, Bring this show-stopper into your garden for a late-winter delight,

SOURCES: 1, 2, 3

1. Forestfarm 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544: 541-846-7269; www.forestfarm.com
2. Heronswood Nursery 7530 N.E. 288th St., Kingston, WA 98346; 360-2974172; www.heronswood.com
3. Wayside Gardens 1 Garden Ln., Hodges, SC 29695; 800-213-0379; www.waysidegardens.com

PHOTO (COLOR): Incorrigible pussy willows require heavy pruning. The catkins (right) can be forced Indoors In late winter.


By Therese Ciesinski

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