How to Grow Pussy Willows Tree

One of the earliest trees to wake up in the late winter garden, pussy willows add structure and color to a space. The plants’ unusual furry catkins bring interest to otherwise dull winter gardens. Continuing the interest, the catkins are quickly followed in spring by white-yellow flowers and attractive oval shaped leaves.

Pussy willows are one of the easiest trees to grow. If planted in the correct position care is minimal and straight forward.

1 Pussy willows distinctive catkins
Pussy willows distinctive catkins. Male catkins are often more yellow than female plants because they are laden with pollen.

Pussy willows are dioecious. This means that some trees produce male and others produce female flowers. You can identify male trees in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that male trees produce catkins before their female counterparts. Male catkins produce numerous small, pollen laden flowers. These attract scores of pollinators, particularly bees, who transfer the pollen to the female catkins. Once pollinated the female pussy willows also begin to flower.

Select the Right Variety

Ongoing care and maintenance of pussy willows is made a lot easier by selecting varieties that, when they are fully mature, are suitable for your garden. Planting an unsuitable variety only creates more work for you later on.

Many garden stores and plant nurseries sell pussy willows. Often sold as young plants, or saplings, try to select the healthiest possible plant. This makes transplanting and general maintenance a lot easier.

2 Different varieties
Attractive and elegant, make sure to choose a variety that fits into your garden. 

Pussy willows are classified as deciduous shrubs. They are suitable for growth in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Depending on the variety and conditions it is planted in, the plant can reach a height of between 6 and 20 ft and achieve a spread of 4 to 12 ft.

There are three types of pussy willows for you to choose from:

  • Salix Discolor
  • Salix Cinerea
  • Salix Caprea

Salix discolor is native to North America. Also known as the American pussy willow, it happily grows throughout the United States. In ideal conditions, Salix discolor can reach about 20 ft in height. However the plant is often a lot smaller than this. In warm or dry conditions Salix discolor rarely exceeds 8 ft.

Salix discolor is identified by its red buds, these slowly develop into silver-white furry catkins. On male plants, the catkin then develops into a yellow flower. On female plants the catkin remains white and fluffy.

Salix cinerea or Grey Willow is the largest of the varieties. In ideal conditions mature varieties can reach about 49 ft in height. With a brushy growth habit, the catkins on this variety tend to cluster towards the branch tips. Male flowers are often a deep yellow shade while female blossoms are a lighter green-gray hue.

3 The distinctive goat willow variety
Goat willow’s tendril-like catkins are a distinctive feature of this variety. 

Salix caprea or Goat Willow is a smaller variety. Rarely exceeding 18 to 33 ft in height, this is a popular ornamental choice for gardeners in cool climates. Salix caprea produces white catkins that are larger than the catkins of Salix discolor. As the plant matures, the catkins develop into large, sometimes tendril-like, blossoms. These are yellow on the male plant and green on the female.

Salix caprea also has a dwarf variety, known as Salix Caprea Pendula or weeping pussy willows. This is a great choice for ground cover or if you simply want to add something really unique to your garden.

Where to Plant

Identifying the perfect planting position is key. Planted in a favorable position pussy willows are attractive, low maintenance plants.

The most important thing to consider when selecting a planting position for pussy willows is the plant’s extensive, almost invasive, root system. This can spread out, damaging foundations, pipes, sewers and septic tanks. Contact your utility or water company before planting. They will be able to tell you exactly where any pipes are on your property, helping you to avoid any costly planting mistakes.

While the plant’s deep roots can be invasive they are also useful. Particularly if you need to control soil erosion. Pussy willows are often used to hold soil in place, particularly on slopes or hills.
4 Plant in a light position
Plant in a light, open area. These plants like to have lots of room to grow into. 

Pussy willows do best somewhere where they can enjoy constant moisture. Boggy areas are ideal, particularly if there is lots of room for their roots to spread. While these plants like full sun positions, they do almost as well in partial sun.

The soil should be rich or loamy with a pH of 6.8 to 7.2. A soil test kit will tell you the makeup of your soil if you are unsure.

Pussy willows grow best in cool or temperate climates. They can also grow in warmer environments but growth may be slower.

How to Plant

Dig a hole twice as large and as deep as the plant’s root ball. Use a shovel to rough up the sides of the hole. This helps the roots to spread more easily through the soil.

Remove your sapling from its pot. Squeezing the sides of the pot to loosen the soil, should make removal easier. If the plant is difficult to remove you may need to cut away the pot.

Center the plant in the hole. When placed in the hole the plant should sit at roughly the same level as when it was in the pot.

When you are happy with the position of the plant carefully backfill the hole, try not to disturb the plant too much. Firm down the soil around the stem and water well.

To help keep these moisture loving plants hydrated, try building up walls of soil around the plant to create a bowl. Fill this bowl, or mini reservoir, with water straight after planting.

If you are planting more than one pussy willow, space the plants 5 to 10 ft apart.

You may need to stake the plant until the roots are firmly anchored. The Dalen Tree Stake Kit is both easy to install and pleasingly robust. It gives plants enough support to ensure a healthy, upright growth habit is developed. A tree stake or support is particularly helpful if you have planted in a windy or exposed area.

If your planting area is prone to deer attacks you may need to protect your trees. This is particularly important when the trees are young and easily damaged. Eversprout’s Tree Trunk Protector is pleasingly robust and can cope with a range of weather conditions.  Birds and squirrels can also damage the plants.

Planting in Pots

Smaller varieties, such as weeping pussy willows, are also suitable for growing in pots. As we have already noted, weeping pussy willows are naturally smaller than other varieties. For example, the Kilmarnock cultivar is particularly small, usually less than 30 ft in height, making it ideal for container gardens.

Select a pot large enough to hold your chosen plant. In cold areas, wooden or plastic pots are a better choice. These are unlikely to break or shatter in cold weather. The pot should also have drainage holes in the bottom.

Fill the pot with fresh potting soil. Alternatively, why not try creating your own soil mix? A simple combination of two part compost, one part multipurpose potting soil is ideal.

Plant as described above and water well. Remember that plants growing in containers often require more frequent watering than plants in the ground.

Caring for Pussy Willows

As I have already noted, if planted in the correct position, pussy willows are pleasingly low maintenance plants. While care is minimal, if you want to encourage the plant to maintain a compact or shrub like shape you will need to prune it regularly.

5 Proper care encourages buds
A little regular care encourages lots of catkins and flowers to emerge. 

When to Water

Pussy willows thrive in moist soil. They are often seen in the wild growing along the banks of rivers or streams.

You will need to water the plants at least once a week if there is no rainfall. When watering use a hose to evenly soak the soil around the base of the plant. Evenly soaking the soil encourages the roots to spread evenly throughout the soil.

How to Fertilize

Top dressing with compost or leaf mold gives pussy willows a good nutritional boost. This can be done in the fall, allowing the mulch to break down over the course of the year.

Alternatively, apply a balanced fertilizer in the fall, once the plant is over one year old. The amount of fertilizer you apply depends on the type of fertilizer and the size of the plant. This information can be found on the side of the fertilizer packet.The general rule is that you should apply 0.5 pounds of fertilizer for every 0.5 inches of trunk diameter.

Spread the fertilizer evenly under the tree canopy, up to 18 inches beyond its drip line. When fertilizing don’t allow the fertilizer to contact the trunk.

How to Propagate

Pussy willows root easily. This makes cuttings the most common and straightforward form of propagation. Like other willows, they contain the rhizocaline hormone, which encourages roots to form and salicylic acid. This helps to keep cuttings fresh for longer, giving roots more time to form.

You can also steep cuttings taken from pussy willows in water to make a pussy willow tea. This can then be used as a natural alternative to commercial rooting hormone products.

Cuttings are best taken in the summer. Only ever take cuttings from healthy plants. Your cutting should be about 1 ft long and roughly as thick as a pencil. It should also be taken from new growth. Avoid the old, gray colored branches. These are far more difficult to root.


Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_jBszDThMA

Fill a pot with moist potting soil and insert the cutting. Plant to a depth of 2 to 4 inches, this should give the cutting lots of stability whilst in the pot. There should be a few nodes, bumps on the branch, above soil level.

You can also root the cuttings in water. Simply fill a vase with fresh water and pop your cutting inside. Roots will emerge within a few weeks. Remember to regularly change the water. Once roots have emerged and are at least 3 inches long, the trees can be potted on.

Allow the cuttings to grow on in pots before planting out once the last frost has passed.

Pruning Pussy Willows

Pruning helps to keep your plants in good shape.Regular pruning also helps to keep plants healthy and prevents them from overcrowding or smothering other plants.

When pruning remember that you are aiming to encourage lots of shrubby growth. For many gardeners a rounded shape is considered the most desirable when it comes to pussy willows. This means restricting the upward growth of the plant. Pruning in this manner encourages new shoots to emerge as suckers from the base or root of the plant.

6 Wait for buds before pruning
Wait until the buds have emerged before your prune. This ensures that catkins won’t accidentally be removed. 

Don’t worry if your plant has grown out of control or become too untidy. Pussy willows respond well to severe pruning. Even if pruned all the way down to the ground, they will happily grow back.

While garden scissors can be used to remove soft young growth you will need sharp shears or loppers to tackle larger branches. Remember to always clean your tools after using them to prevent disease spreading around your garden.

The best time to prune these plants is when the catkins are present, either in bud or in full bloom. This means that while you are pruning your plant before active growth has begun you aren’t in danger of accidentally removing any of the young branches that produce catkins and flowers.

How to Prune

To prune pussy willows, begin by removing the tops of branches bearing catkins. Continue by removing any dead and damaged branches.

Next, cut a third of the oldest, gray branches down to the ground. This enables you to easily identify the newer, brown branches. Use the top of these branches as a measure to prune the rest of the plant. Cut the other branches, from which you have harvested catkins, down to the same level as the new branches.

When pruning cut above branch nodes that grow along the outside of the branch. This encourages new growth to emerge from the nodes. Outward nodes are less likely to produce branches than cross-over or entwine with other branches.

Finally, tidy up the plant by removing any crossed or damaged branches.

Repeat this pruning process every year, after three years all the oldest growth will have been removed.  

You can also coppice prune your pussy willows. This is useful if you want long, straight stalks to use in floral arrangements.

To coppice prune, cut the plants down to about 6 to 12 inches from the ground. Allow only the trunk to remain in place. New shoots will emerge as long, straight stalks. These can then be trained to grow as straight as possible along trellising or wires.

Common Problems and how to Solve Them

If planted correctly pussy willows are largely trouble free.

Plants failing to flower or produce catkins can be disappointing. This can be caused by one of several different reasons.

A lack of water can cause stress which often leads to a failure to flower. A lack of light or planting in deep shade, can also cause this issue. Birds, particularly bullfinches, can eat catkins, particularly during hard winters. Finally, pruning at the wrong time of year can cause catkins to be accidentally removed from the plant.

Foliage covered with white powder, or powdery mildew, can be a sign of a lack of moisture. Serious infestations can be treated with a sulfur spray.

Yellow spots on foliage, a sign of fungi or rust. While not a deadly issue, this can lead to spore bearing pustules developing if left untreated. It can also cause foliage to fall from the plant. Rust can be treated with a copper fungicide.

Leaf spot causes foliage to brown and fall from the plant. It can also cause yellow or black patches to appear on leaves. Like rust, this can be treated with a copper fungicide. Pick up and destroy affected foliage. Do not place diseased plants or cuttings on the compost heap.

Regularly check the plants for signs of infestation such as aphids or scale. These can be removed with a  blast from a hose or an application of insecticidal soap.

Imported willow leaf beetle (Plagiodera versicolora) can cause leaves to become skeletal. Adult beetles can also create large holes in the foliage. Bacillus Thuringiensis, or BT, can be used to treat this issue but it is a chemical product. This means that it kills helpful insects and pollinators as well as the leaf beetle. Instead of using a chemical control, you can try to control infestations by pruning away affected areas.

7 Attractive and resilient pussy willows
Attractive and resilient, with a little regular care your late winter garden will be filled with attractive catkins and colorful flowers.

An attractive specimen plant, the furry catkins of the pussy willows are one of springs earliest harbingers. Pleasingly low maintenance and resilient, these attractive plants are the ideal addition to the ornamental garden.

Pussy Willows 1 Pussy Willows 2

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