Crocuses, daffodils, and hyacinths are considered spring’s heralds, but for nature lovers who are lucky enough to live near woods or wetlands, the season arrives more subtly—it creeps in on the soft gray paws of the pussy willow (Salix discolor). The pussy willow tree, which is native to North America, is typically grown for its small furry catkins, but also provides fall color (leaves turn a soft yellow) and winter interest (branches are red to purple to brown). If you’ve got a space in your woodland garden that stays relatively moist, it might be the perfect bed for this silky spring harbinger.
Common name: Pussy willow
Botanical name: Salix discolor
Plant type: Deciduous shrub or small tree
Zones: 4 to 8
Height: 10 to 25
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Moist to wet
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Cut to the ground in early spring (after the catkins finish) every few years. This will keep the plant smaller and encourage long, straight stems.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• In the spring, cut a 10-inch twig from a dormant branch and plant it with buds pointing up.
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to many diseases, including canker, crown gall, nematodes, powdery mildew, rust, and twig blight.
• Common pests include borers, caterpillars, aphids, lacebugs, and scale.
• Salix discolor looks good in woodland gardens or other naturalistic settings.
• The male plant produces soft, gray catkins. Female trees have smaller, greenish catkins.
• Use in low spots or along streams or ponds.
• Like other willows, the pussy willow produces lots of twig and leaf litter. Don’t plant it near a septic system or drain, as the roots search out water and may cause damage.
• None available
All in the family
• If you want showy yellow catkins instead of gray, try Salix humilis (prairie willow), which grows in the wild in the same regions as Salix discolor.
• Related species include Salix alba (white willow) and Salix babylonica (weeping willow).
Where to buy
• Arbor Day Foundation, Nebraska City, NE, 888-448-7337, www.arborday.org
• Shooting Star Nursery, Georgetown, KY, 866-405-7979, www.shootingstarnursery.com
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)