Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines

Pussy Willows

by Patricia Acton with the NG


Ask a gardening friend about willows and he or she will likely recall the large weeping types and all their charming if often dubious qualities. Though unquestionably graceful and picturesque at the edges of ponds and streams, these trees can grow over 70 feet tall and are notoriously weak-wooded and messy. The reputation of their moisture-seeking roots for breaching pipes and the foundations of houses is also, unfortunately, too true.

Look beyond these giants, however, and you'll find another world of smaller, more manageable willows with brightly colored stems and leaves, unique forms and textures, and stunning catkins (the "pussies" of pussy willows).

If you've ever bought cut pussy willow stems from a florist to brighten the house in winter, you might enjoy growing your own for cutting at will. The catkins appear in late winter or very early spring and are easily forced into earlier bloom if brought into a warm house. And the color range is surprising: the catkins range from typical silver gray to soft pink. Some are even ebony black.

My own introduction to willows was born of laziness. I figured it would be a lot easier to choose plants that would thrive in the low, damp areas of my property than to raise or drain those areas. And because my garden is just 1/3 acre, I wanted plantings that would mature no larger than large shrubs or small trees. While I was thinking of willows primarily as a solution to planting in wet soil, I discovered many small tree and shrub forms that deserve a place of honor in the garden.

Willow flowers are tiny and come clustered in catkins. All willows are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either all-male or all-female catkins. The male catkins are usually finer-textured, and with their colorful stamens, are also much more ornamental.

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