Arboretum Magazine Web Extra

A Prelude to Spring: the Pussy Willow

Pussy Willows are a native plant that epitomizes this season of transition, acting as a harbinger of a new growing season.

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article previously appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Arboretum Magazine. Additional information from Alan Branhagen appears at end of the article.

By Alan Branhagen

Though Minnesotans and others from the Upper Midwest revel in the sublime beauty of winter, we still are keenly aware of the first signs of spring. February is winter and March is spring in meteorological terms but solar spring begins in February with longer days as we approach the Vernal Equinox and the first day of spring on March 21. Pussy Willows (Salix discolor) are a native plant that epitomizes this season of transition, acting as a harbinger of a new growing season.

Photo by Alan Branhagen

There are seven willow species native on the Arboretum grounds and 17 species native to Minnesota, but it is the pussy willow that is first to break dormancy and flower. A mild stretch in late winter will cause this plant’s flower buds to burst their rich brown “caps” with silvery hairs poking out like a kitty’s toes. Gradually the entire flower structure, known as a catkin (you can easily figure out how it got its name), emerges from the bud as a delightful silky cone, sparkling in the angled sunlight of the season. It is at this stage the stems are often cut and dried for spring décor and spring themed flower arrangements.

Photo by Alan Branhagen

The catkins are not truly in flower at this classic pussy willow stage. When warmer weather does arrive, the catkins burst forth with their flowers and are either male or female on a particular plant. Male blooms are comprised of pollen-covered stamens with some nectar at their base, gathered by many a hungry pollinator. Female flowers are nectar-rich pistils also feeding a plethora of newly emerged pollinators – enticing them into their pollination services. This early feast makes them important plants in a pollinator-friendly landscape.

So this late winter, be sure to seek out our native pussy willow and observe its vital role as food for our soul and sustenance for Nature. It is a large shrub found mainly on the edges of wetlands: the Arb’s bog walk is a great way to see it up close and personal. Consider planting a pair in your landscape and bring this beauty of local nature home.

Photo by Yurii Lehkyi at Unsplash

Pussy willows grow 8 to 15-feet tall and can be trained as a multi-trunked small tree or it can be coppiced (cut back each spring after bloom) to remain as a shrub, which forces it to regrow long stems that are usually covered with catkins. Since the plant is so important to pollinators in spring, including several specialist bee species that will feed their offspring pollen and nectar from no other plants, we recommend you harvest no more than 15 percent of a plant for décor.

The plant is also a host to the Viceroy butterfly (its caterpillar feeds on this plant). The Viceroy caterpillars survive the winter inside the remains of a willow leaf they have secured to the plant with their silk. They survive in this winter hibernaculum tethered to the plant in their silken sleeping bag and emerge in spring to feast on fresh new leaves. So also watch for these unique structures when cutting pussy willows and let those stems be.

Female plants’ flowers form seed capsules that pop open later in spring with silky tufted seeds. The silk helps transport the seed on the wind. The spring seed fluff is also gathered by many songbirds as a downy, insulating lining to their nests.

Photo by Pasja 1000 at Pixabay

Pussy willows usually thrive in wetlands and areas with extra moisture so are a good choice for a problematic wet spot in your landscape. They can also grow in drier sites so are tolerant of average garden soils. They do need full sun or close to that to thrive and bloom.

Pussy willows are ornamental beyond their early spring bloom: the foliage is beautifully bicolored as the undersides are a glaucous bluish that contrasts strikingly with the darker green upperside in a breeze. In autumn, pussy willows turn a clear yellow, yellowish-white underneath, and this is usually late in the season in late October or early November.

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