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What is a Pussy Willow?

By Anna Harrison
Updated May 16, 2024
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A pussy willow is a medium to large sized shrub that is known for its fuzzy ornamental white catkins that appear in early spring. There are two common species, Salix discolor, or American pussy willow, and Salix caprea, which grows throughout Europe. The pussy willow catkins preserve well and can be used in both fresh and dried flower arrangements. They are often carried instead of palms in Poland and other European countries and are used to decorate churches for Easter services. The flexible branches of these willows are also used to make outdoor furniture, arbors, and trellises.

The American variety of pussy willow is smaller than those found in Europe, often growing to just 20 feet tall (6 m) or less. It has narrow, light green leaves with toothed edges that are nearly white on the undersides. The European pussy willow may grow as tall as 45 feet (14 m) and has leaves much like the American species, but they are wider and longer. Both of these are also known as goat willow, gray willow, or gray sallow.

All types of willow require plenty of water, and the pussy willow can often be found growing alongside ponds, lakes, or streams. They have wide spreading roots that will actually search for water; the majority of their root systems are found on the side of the shrub facing the water. For this reason, they should never be planted near a sewer, septic system, or water line; the tenacious roots will penetrate them, thus causing cracking and expensive repairs.

The pussy willow will grow in either full sun or partial shade and will tolerate nearly any type of soil. They should be pruned back severely in spring, when done flowering, to encourage fullness of the shrub and larger catkins. These shrubs are long lived and very fast to mature, usually growing several feet in one season.

These shrubs are among the easiest to root; new plants will form by simply cutting a portion of a green wood branch and sticking it into damp soil. They can also be rooted directly in water; cuttings that have been used in flower arrangements will often form roots. These can be planted outdoors in warm weather to form numerous new plants. This is a good way to create an inexpensive, fast-growing hedge or privacy screen.

Pussy willow branches are fun and simple to force and require no special treatment. Branches should be cut in late winter after they have formed buds. They will bloom quickly when kept in water in a warm room and will last for several weeks. Pussy willows are toxic, however, and should be kept away from small children and pets.

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