1295 Salix discolorCommon Names: pussy willow Family: Salicaceae (willow Family)
Pussy willow can be a many stemmed shrub or a small tree with a rounded, open crown. Pussy willows get 8-15 ft (2.4- 4.5 m) tall and can spread 4-12 ft (1.2-3.6 m) across. The deciduous leaves are narrowly elliptical or lance shaped, around 2-4 in (2-10 cm) long, sparsely toothed along the margins, and pointed on the tips. They are shiny dark green above and whitish blue-green beneath. Young branchlets are reddish purple.
Pussy willow is dioecious; that is, the male and the female flowers are on separate plants. Immature flowers are cylindrical silvery grayish catkins, furry and silky, about an inch long. They appear on bare shoots well before the leaves in very early spring. As the flowers mature the male catkins develop golden yellow stamens that bear conspicuous golden pollen, and the female catkins stay silvery, but develop slender greenish pistils. The fruits are capsules clustered in hanging catkins 2-3 in (6-8 cm) long. The tiny seeds are dispersed by wind or water.
Salix discolor occurs naturally across northern North America from Newfoundland to British Columbia south to Virginia and west to Iowa and North Dakota, with scattered outlier populations. Pussy willow is always found in wet places – pond margins, streamsides, swamps, marshes, ditches and retention ponds. Look for this iconic harbinger of spring in open or disturbed wetlands within coniferous forests. It often grows in pure or nearly pure stands and often with cottonwood (Populus deltoides), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), and other willow species. Pussy willow is a colonizer species, one of the first to occupy new ground when waters recede or a disturbance opens the canopy to sunlight. They are not found in shade or mature swamps with big trees.
Pussy willow responds well to pruning if you want to use it in a hedge. You also can prune pussy willows to the ground in winter every 3 or 4 years to maintain a smaller shrub size. Light: Pussy willow does best in full sun and is considered very shade intolerant when young. However, mature specimens can tolerate partial shade. Moisture: Pussy willow is partial to wet areas, but once established, it can tolerate normal garden soils and normal watering. In fact, pussy tolerates dry soils better than most willows, weeping willow (Salix babylonica), included. Pussy willow also can tolerate periods of flooding. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 8 . Propagation: Young softwood stems can be rooted. Basal sprouts can be collected to start new plants. Seeds lose viability quickly and must be collected as soon as the fruits ripen. Seeds cannot be stored more than 4 or 5 weeks and germination rates decline rapidly after just 10 days. Plant willow seeds shallowly in moist soil (not under water) immediately after collection and expect germination in 24 hours or less. Once established, the seedlings can tolerate submergence.
Little pussy feet begin to appear on the bare stems of this northern icon while the rest of the world is still gripped in the gray and cold of late winter. Use pussy willows in a rain garden or along the edge of a pond or stream. They make useful additions to an informal mixed hedge. Male plants have larger and more decorative catkins, and are preferred for ornamental landscapes.
Florists make much use of the young catkin-bearing stems, especially the male ones. Older, mature shoots with their capsule fruits are good in dried arrangements. You can force pussy willow to bloom in winter by bringing some cut stems inside and standing them in a vase of water.
Early foraging bees dine on pussy willow’s abundant pollen as well as the sweet nectar, which is higher in sugar content than many flowers. Early in the spring, pussy willow is often the most important forage for honeybees. Deer, squirrels, rabbits and other mammals nibble on the young shoots. The caterpillars of Mourning Cloak and Viceroy butterflies eat the leaves.
Goat willow (Salix caprea), sometimes also called pussy willow, is native to Eurasia, and characterized by showy male catkins that are larger than pussy willow’s. There are several cultivars of goat willow, including a male ‘Kilmarnock’ and a female (‘Weeping Sally’), both of which droop so much that they are used as ground covers or grafted onto erect standards to create miniature weeping trees that look like mop heads.
Steve Christman 8/31/17