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When you see this plant, you know spring is coming. What to know about the pussy willow

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Some plants conjure up fond memories of my youth, and pussy willow is one of them. My mother would cut shoots of our pussy willow plant, bring them inside and put them in a large glass vase, where they would develop furry catkins. In addition to being a harbinger of spring, the pussy willow is also a valuable native plant found in the North American wetlands.

The botanical name for pussy willow is Salix discolor and the plants are dioecious, with the male pussy willow trees producing catkins earlier than the female trees. The catkins of males yield numerous tiny white flowers with yellow stamens and greenish styles full of pollen later in spring, and when the blooms reach this point they are not considered decorative for floral cuttings.

You can tell if you have a male plant when the catkins begin to take on a yellowish appearance due to the pollen being held on the tips of the now formed anthers. The catkins on the female plant bear flowers of their own that receive the males’ pollen via flies and bees. The oval leaves are bright green and shinny and emerge after the development of the catkins.

The mature size of a pussy willow will range from 6 to 20 feet tall with a spread 4 to 12 feet wide. It prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade. A soil that is rich and loamy is preferred with a pH of 6.8 to 7.2, which is around neutral. Bloom time is March to April, which is right around now. Pussy willow is also great for attracting butterflies and songbirds in your garden, so do not cut all the stems for indoor forcing. Since they bloom so early they are a valuable food source for wildlife especially birds such as chickadees and goldfinches that feed on the insects attracted to the strongly scented nectar.

Several species of butterflies are attracted to the pussy willow, including the Viceroy. The Viceroy butterfly looks very similar to the Monarch but the Viceroy has a thin, black line that runs across it lower wings like a necklace. The Viceroy is common to Pennsylvania and the female lays her eggs on the tip of the pussy willow leaf. The first tiny caterpillar produced after the eggs hatch will, depending if it is fall and cold weather is approaching, roll itself in a leaf. As the leaf withers, curls and drops off the plant, the tiny caterpillar hangs onto the leaf and drops to the ground. It will stay there until spring when the leaves begin budding, at which time the caterpillar will climb back up the bush and begin eating the leaves before going into its chrysalis stage. Soon after that you will begin to see Viceroy butterflies. Another butterfly that finds the pussy willow an attractive host is the Mourning Cloak, a large butterfly that has dark brown/maroon wings with a cream colored ragged edge. This butterfly overwinters in Pennsylvania as an adult butterfly.

In early or late February (depending on where you live) you can pick branches with catkins that haven’t fully opened yet and force them inside. After successfully forcing them, you may want to preserve them, as well, for use in dried flower arrangements. Here are some tips on forcing your pussy willow stems.

Watch for swelling at the nodes along the branches of pussy willows. This will be the first indication of the catkins to come. Pick a day when the temperatures are above freezing, if possible, and cut a length of a branch about 2 feet long. Repeat for as many branches as you desire or are available. Bring the pussy willows inside the house and place the bottoms of the branches in a vase filled with lukewarm water. With the bottom of the stems submerged, cut approximately 1 inch off which will promote water intake, similar to how you handle cut flowers. You can add a floral preservative to the water, similar to cut flowers. Wrap the exposed areas of the branches in damp newspaper or cloth to preserve the humidity. Then place the vase in a cool, dark spot for a day or two, until the stems begin to show color at which time you can remove the newspaper or cloth and place the vase in a cool spot (60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) in indirect sun. Mist the branches occasionally until the pussy willow catkins appear.

And what about cleaning up the dead leaves around your pussy willow? What about all the small caterpillars wrapped up in the leaves at the base of the pussy willow? If you cleaned up everything and also cut off every catkin in the spring, I believe that you would miss out on watching nature play out before your eyes. Also, out here in the woods I need to protect my pussy willow, or the deer will help prune all branches within their reach.

Bill Lamont is professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.