In the Garden:
For Lou, who grew up in Michigan, the pussy willow is a much loved harbinger of spring.
Welcome Spring with Pussy Willows
I saw an old buddy recently and wasn't surprised to find him true to form. My friend Lou, know in these parts as "the pussy willow man," was speaking to a garden club about his favorite plant and reminiscing about the era when his passion for the genus Salix began.
Lou was a child of the Great Depression in the wilds of Michigan just south of the Canadian border. Life was good, however, for a kid who relished every chance to explore the countryside with a BB gun slung across his shoulder and a couple of good pals at his side.
In those hard times, any bit of treasure found along the way was borne home in triumph. In late winter, even when snow might still cover the ground, more often than not the prize was a clutch of pussy willow stems. "There was no such thing as bouquets of flowers at the grocery store," Lou told the group with a laugh, "and even if there was, we didn't have the money to buy them."
The pussy willows of Lou's childhood weren't just a convenient gift for mom, though; they were also an eagerly awaited harbinger of spring. When swamp and creek banks shimmered with branches covered in sleek, pearl gray catkins, the boys knew the end of another long, cold winter was close at hand.
Since his retirement and move to the Middle South nearly a decade ago, Lou has made it his mission to spread the word about this easy-to-grow plant and the pleasures of its cut stems, which can be dried and enjoyed for many months, even years. It was Lou, in fact, who prompted me to plant a pussy willow in my previous garden.
Though Salix discolor is the species native to North America, I chose to grow a European species, Salix caprea, sometimes called florist willow. This willow is not particular about growing conditions and requires less water than its reputation suggests. It does like lots of light, however, so I placed it in nearly full sun.
Like other willows, the plant grew quickly and I was able to harvest branches after its second year of growth. My practice was to coppice the tree at the time of harvest in late winter, just when the catkins were beginning to pop through their mahogany bud scales. After straight branches were trimmed away, I reduced the height of the trunks to within a foot of the ground. To finish the job, I carefully angled each cut to an outward facing node, preventing rain from pooling on top of the stem and discouraging cross branching.
Severe pruning such as this (also called stooling) encourages vigorous regrowth during the growing season and prolific flowering at the end of the dormant season. It also forces the plant into a manageable shrub form and stimulates the growth of long, straight stems that are free of twiggy branches.
Unwanted stems, such as those with few catkins, can be used for propagation. New plants are easy to start from a twelve inch length of branch, potted up or pushed into a propagation bed, leaving only three inches of the stem above the soil.
Other bits and pieces of branches can be used to make willow water. Simply cut them into small pieces and put them into a clean bucket or pot, then cover with very hot or boiling water and leave them to sit overnight. Auxin, a hormone that encourages root growth, will leach out of the wood and into the water. Use the willow water to irrigate newly potted cuttings or to soak fresh cuttings before they are potted.
Like Lou, triumphantly tote branches harvested for display inside. If the stems are cut after the catkins have burst from their caps, arrange them in an empty vase to dry. Otherwise, place them in room-temperature water until they reach perfection.
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