Pussy Willows

One of the first plants to show signs of life in the spring is the pussy willow. As its name implies pussy willow, Salix discolor, is a relative of the white willow and the black willow trees that are so common along the banks of creeks and ponds in Western New York. Pussy willows have as many as 400 relatives all found in both the temperate and frigid zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Pussy willows range throughout most of southern Canadian provinces and in the northern continental United States east of the Rockies. The genus name Salix comes from a Latin word meaning to leap or to spring which describes the pattern of growth in the spring.

Pussy willows are also called glaucous willow a reference to their blue-gray color. The bark is gray to brown. The furry catkins show up before the leaves and are actually flowers that have no petals. Even though the willow species are noted for thriving in damp and wet places, gardeners know that pussy willows will thrive once established without extra water.

March is the perfect time to propagate pussy willows. Make cuttings about 6 inches to a foot long when the pussy willows begin to bloom. Place the cuttings in containers with several inches of water. I like to place the cuttings in a bright window but this probably is not necessary to promote rooting. (The buds should be pointing upward !) When the roots are about 3 inches long, plant the pussy willows into potting mix in pots that are deep enough for the cuttings to develop deep strong roots. Keep these in a bright window and in several days to a week the leaves will emerge. Since the leaves carry on photosynthesis in the bright lights the plants should soon begin to flourish. Like all plants that are begun inside the plants will need to be hardened off in May before they are planted in a sunny area in the garden. Give these young plants extra water during their first season in the garden, watering deeply so the roots will grow downward deeply into the soil. This establishment during the first growing season will help insure the pussy willows success in later years.

I have talked with several people who have used the water used to root pussy willows to root other plant species especially forced shrub cuttings such as forsythia and quince. I have experimented with this and believe that there is more success with those started in the pussy willow water. I don't know if this is due to a hormone which is released or due to the aspirin type compound present in all willows which might prevent bacteria from also growing in the water. Try it yourself and see what you think!

I have to confess that my original plantings of pussy willows were decimated by rabbits who find them delicious. The only answer to this problem is your (my) placing chicken wire around the plants late in the growing season.

Once your pussy willows are established it will be necessary for you to cut them back each spring to keep them strong. Prune them just after they finish blooming. Wait too long before pruning and you will cut off next year's blooms.

By the way, pussy willows are used in many European churches instead of palms on Palm Sunday I do know that in Poland boys used to cut pussy willows to chase and strike the legs of girls on Dyngus Day, the day after Easter. Modern girls however are not quite so acquiescent about this old custom.

Forver Young Magazine - March 2009