Is it spring yet?

For many gardeners, the earliest signs of spring are snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils. But if you know where to look, you can find blooming flowers — and the little critters who need them – even before those bulbs come to life. One of the earliest bloomers in the Northern half of the US also happens to be one of our most interesting and valuable native shrubs: Salix discolor, or the amazing Pussy Willow!

In February, Pussy Willows are already producing the adorable, fuzzy flowers that give them their common name. This type of flower has no petals or fragrance, and is known as a “catkin” from the Dutch word “katteken,” which means kitten. Just as soft to the touch as they look, the silvery catkins are popular in spring flower arrangements and delight children of all ages.

 Pussy Willows start blooming in February
The soft hairs on catkins protect the inner flower parts from cold and snow

Over the next month, the catkins will gradually open revealing numerous string-like filaments. Pussy willow shrubs are dioecious, meaning the shrub holds either male or female flowers. On the male plants, the filaments hold quantities of pollen that give the catkins a bright yellow appearance. The female flowers look more like spiny caterpillars than kittens, so for ornamental purposes, the male shrubs are preferred.

By mid-April, the catkins have opened and leaves begin to emerge

Pussy Willows typically are large, multi-stemmed shrubs or small trees, topping out between 15 and 25 feet. Unlike most trees, however, they can benefit from being severely pruned, or “coppiced,” to keep them shorter. Cutting back the branches after blooming will generate multiple slender new stems, increasing the fullness of the shrub and the number of catkins within easy reach in the following season. 

Humans have used the flexible young branches of willows for basket-weaving, arrows, rustic fencing, and many other purposes for hundreds of years. One of the most important traditional uses of willow bark was medicinal. Willow bark tea contains salicin, a pain-killer and fever reducer, now synthetically produced as aspirin.

Pussy Willow’s natural form is a large, multi-trunked shrub, but it can easily be pruned as a hedge or privacy screen

By far the most important use of Pussy Willow in our gardens, however, is to support native pollinators and other insects. As one of the very earliest plants to bloom, Pussy Willow provides nectar and pollen for early-emerging native bees. In fact, the Andrina family of native bees are willow “specialists” – they must have willow pollen to feed their young. The nectar of willow catkins also supports many other insects in early spring when food is especially scarce.

 A tiny ant finds what it needs on Pussy Willow

All summer long, the leaves of Pussy Willow feed the caterpillars of more than 450 species of moths and butterflies — second only to oak trees in providing caterpillars for baby birds! Willow is a host plant for a huge number of our most spectacular butterflies: Viceroy, Red-spotted Purple, Mourning Cloak, and various hairstreaks, fritillaries, and dusky-wings.

Mourning Cloaks are just one of hundreds of butterfly species that depend on willows

In addition to Pussy Willows, there are at least 90 species of willows native to the US, and 20 or more native to the Northeast. Unfortunately, there are also many non-native species sold in the nursery trade, including the well-known weeping willow (Salix babylonica), that do not provide the same value to our native birds and insects. Be sure to check the scientific name before you add a willow to your landscape.  Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), Black Willow (Salix nigra), Shining Willow (Salix lucida), and Silky Willow (Salix sericea) are all good native shrubs, but Pussy Willow is likely the easiest to find.

Pussy Willow is a great choice for sunny wet areas, including rain gardens. It is an ideal solution for a soggy lawn area where rainwater tends to collect. All willows have extensive root systems that seek out water, so they should not be planted near a septic system, but they are perfect near a stream or pond or anywhere you want to stabilize a slope eroded by stormwater.

Deer will browse Pussy Willow, but because the shrub actually benefits from winter pruning, the nibbling is unlikely to harm the plant. Pussy Willows grow fast and are very resilient. In fact, many people propagate them simply by cutting off a dormant stem in winter and sticking it in the ground, or even a glass of water, until roots appear. Hardy in Zones 2 through 7, the only thing Pussy Willow does not tolerate well is shade. You’ll need at least a half day of sun, and plenty of water until the roots are established. 

Pussy Willow is an all-around winner: easy to grow, interesting and attractive, incredibly valuable for the ecology, and a real problem-solver for a troublesome spot in the landscape.

So, where will you put it?


6 thoughts on “Before the Bulbs

  1. Cathy you are amazing and your information is so valuable and informative. I will use your info as guidance when I am doing this year’s new plantings – all native. Thank you so much.

  2. One of my favorites!
    (Can’t have too many.)

    Thanks Cathy for all of the important information about the many pollinators who depend on Pussy Willow.

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