A pussy willow for every swamp

Pussy willow catkins in early March

The variegated pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Variegata’, above) sprawls about the rear property line with an open habit and a tangled mass of branches. One look will dissuade a gardener from believing this wide spreading shrub is appropriate for any place other than the far reaches of the garden, and more preferably onto someone else’s property. A spot of damp and swampy ground is ideal, though the gardener should take into consideration that he is likely to want to wade in to cut catkins in late winter. The key is that the site should be wet so that dry land is not wasted on such a contrary shrub, but that the gardener should not suffer greatly in retrieving a few handfuls of the delightful catkins to bring into the kitchen.

Variegated pussy willowPussy willow seems such an old timey, romantic shrub, and in fact the late winter catkins are lovely. But, if the gardener expects some other redeeming feature he will be deeply disappointed. The foliage of any pussy willow is only bland, and  the variegated form (above) is only slightly more ornamental. With this, there is no shrub or tree better suited to this spot in my garden, for there are few plants that will tolerate the perpetually swampy ground.

Pussy willow catkins in mid-March

Superior native shrubs such as chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa and A. arbutifolia) and buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) thrive in dampness, but are not so vigorous as pussy willow, and the foliage and fruit of the delightful chokeberries are favorites of neighborhood deer. Nothing, I think, bothers the pussy willow, and so it continues to grow wider to consume more of the rear property line. Now, it is nearly thirty feet across, though I’m unable to verify this with accuracy since the surrounding ground is ankle deep muck that makes measurement impractical. Shade from a more recently planted river birch (Betula nigra) has made little impact to slow the pussy willow’s growth, and its sprawling form has not changed with diminished sunlight.Pussy willow in mid February

Certainly, the gardener who must have a pussy willow, or who has an ideal situation, must be advised against planting more than one. This is a shrub with surprising vigor, and one should not believe for a moment references that state that it will grow to only twelve feet in width. Yes, it will do that, by the third year. If you have a hankering to plant one, take a walk to the intended spot and walk five paces in one direction from the center point, then return and go another five paces in the opposite direction. There you have it, a shrub that will consumer the space of a two car garage. If this area is entirely wet you have found an ideal situation, but if the shoes are not sucked right off your feet, perhaps it would be best to consider alternatives.

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3 thoughts on “A pussy willow for every swamp

  1. I have to admit I have a soft spot for pussy willows despite their ornery nature. And getting an eyeful of catkins, thanks to your fab photos, is a pleasant surprise. A winter snowstorm has us socked in again up here in Southern Ontario.

    • One of the attributes of pussy willows that I failed to mention is that they are cold hardy almost everywhere, including Ontario. Though my northwestern Virginia garden was snow covered until a few days ago, gardeners in this area can take for granted that we have many more choices of plants to pick from since our winters are not so severe. At long last, we’re beginning to emerge from this inordinately cold winter, so now I have snowdrops and crocus popping out that would usually flower a few weeks ago.

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