Pussy willow

Through February the local grocery store does brisk business selling bundles of pussy willow stems that have been forced into bloom. I have a rather large pussy willow growing at the rear of my garden, so it’s no surprise to me that few homeowners have a pussy willow of their own from which to cut stems.

I once met a fellow at a garden show who cut stems of pussy willow from wetlands on his farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He sold bundles of four or five stems for ten dollars each, as I recall. I frequently saw people walking around the show with several bundles, and I calculated that this fellow earned roughly my year’s salary in the show’s three days. He was big and burly (much like me, maybe a bit scruffier, but with a better beard), exactly what I would imagine a Pennsylvania pussy willow farmer to be, but today he’s likely to be living in luxury (but looking out of the windows of his castle at a field of out of control pussy willows).  

The pussy willow in my garden is an ill mannered tangle of sprawling branches, but by good fortune I planted it at the rear property line (maybe even over the line) in swampy ground that few other plants would tolerate. Here I can ignore its shortcomings, and enjoy the catkins that arrive in late winter (its one redeeming feature).

I can barely remember, but I think this pussy willow was supposed to have variegated foliage, which seemed at the time to be a reason enough to make the purchase. Now, I see no evidence of variegation in the leaves, and I don’t think it was ever very noticeable. For many plants variegated leaves are unstable, with new growth reverting to the normal green, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the aggressively growing pussy willow changed back to its non-variegated form.

Years ago I planted another pussy willow with pendulous branches (Salix caprea ‘Pendula’). This tree is a sure fire attraction at garden shows, but in practice I’ve found it disappointing. The above ground parts of the tree grow quite vigorously, and in early spring it is marvelous in bloom. But, the roots don’t keep pace, and my tree (and others I’ve seen) eventually toppled over in a summer storm. I staked the fallen tree upright, but as soon as the stakes were removed it fell again, and again, and finally I chopped it out.

I will marginally agree that there are no bad plants, only plants that are planted in the wrong place, But, pussy willow is seldom satisfactory, unless you happen to own a bit of swampland (or you’re marketing cut stems to a grocer or garden show). If you like to have a few forced branches on the kitchen counter as a reminder that spring is approaching I suggest purchasing the stems, and plant a shrub in your garden that is bit more mannerly and attractive through the year.

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5 thoughts on “Pussy willow

  1. Hi Dave,
    Does a pussy willow do well in all climates and how exactly do I plant stems and force to bloom… I do have them with other dried flowers in an antique crock that I own and would love to see how they do here in a garden… SC Heartland. Oh, I do have a really wet swampy area that is a drainage ditch on side of yard that my chocolate Joe pie weed loves… Not sure if I spelled that name correct?

    Kathryn

    • If Joe Pye weed grows then this is likely to be fine for pussy willow. I doubt that your summer heat will bother it at all. It’s extremely easy, but it prefers damp rather than dry. Once established it is probably impossible to kill.

      The simplest way to start pussy willow is from a container or balled and burlap plant, but I would guess that it’s extremely easy to root in damp ground in the spring. In your area the catkins will probably begin to show late in January, but any time after the new year you can cut stems to bring indoors. Cutting the pussy willow only encourages it to grow more vigorously.

  2. I have been given a very small Pussy Willow, if I plant it in my garden, will it take over and the roots go everywhere and under the house?? Thanks for your reply in advance.

    • I recommend giving pussy willow some space since it wants to sprawl about and grow wide. The roots are not a concern, but pussy willow grows quickly enough that figuring you’ll keep it pruned will probably not work out. With some plants an annual pruning will do the trick, but pussy willow will continue to grow and will require multiple prunings to keep it in bounds.

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