Pussy Willow: Culture and Uses for This Timeless and Useful Bush

6 years ago ·

Pussy Willow: Culture and Uses for This Timeless and Useful Bush

Most of you are familiar with the silver fuzzy catkins that signal the coming of spring faithfully every March. Some know Pussy Willow as a bush that grows in the wild, semi-open areas that have been left to overgrow, while others cultivate the bush for its excellent dried floral material that seems to have no trouble finding a place within the home every spring. In this article, I will deal with not only how to optimize the bush in the landscape, but also on the different varieties of Pussy Willow and their uses. In this article, I will deal with Common Pussy Willow, French Pink Pussy Willow, and Curly Pussy Willow.

Common Pussy Willow

Common Pussy Willow consists of any bush that grows in the wild by itself. There seem to be two varieties of wild Pussy Willow, the ones that bloom early and the ones that grow aggressively, bloom later, and usually have a slightly lesser catkin performance. Both varieties grow up to forty feet in height, will grow six to twelve inches in diameter, and live between forty and sixty years. Sprouts grow freely from the ground and from the branches. The tree can handle severe pruning and cutting back.

French Pink Pussy Willow

French Pink Pussy Willow is an improved cultivar in that it retains strong growth, has improved catkin size and density, and its twigs and catkin scales retain a red color in the winter. As a tree, it will grow 30-40 feet in height and 20-30 feet wide, often exhibiting multiple branching. It does tend to put out sprouts, which require pruning.

Curly Pussy Willow

Curly Pussy Willow is a rare variety of Pussy Willow that I was able to get a hold of through my involvement in the Floral Industry over the years. How large the bush will actually grow is uncertain, as I continue to prune my bushes heavily every spring to satisfy demand. I assume it will grow to the size of any other pussy willow. So far, it has exhibited strong growth and reliable bloom and twig performance. Catkin density is thick, but the catkin size is lacking in that the catkins are not really fluffy. But the feature that really defines this cultivar and makes it stand out is the tendency of the twig to flatten out, curl, contort, and eventually look like some weird type of hockey stick or golf club.


Propagating Pussy Willow is really easy. Before the bush puts out leaves, cut some twigs and put them in water. A stem a quarter of an inch thick and about a foot high usually works the best. Look for twigs that exhibit fast, strong growth. Avoid thin, weak, slow growing side branches, as they usually do not produce a good cutting. Make sure the water stays fresh and does not dry up. Within a couple weeks, roots will be developing. When the roots are between one to two inches long, remove the cuttings from the water and plant in the ground or in flowerpots. During the first year, water frequently. At the end of the year, if the plants are in flowerpots, they can be planted in the ground. During the first year, a lot of the plant’s energy is invested in its root system. By the second year, you should start seeing strong, good growth.

Left to itself, Pussy Willow will grow two to four feet a year when mature, to six feet per year when young. The problem with this is the bush tends to stretch into a tree, leaving the valuable twigs out of reach and even somewhat out of sight. The tree also tends to produce poorer bloom when not pruned.

There are several ways that the tree can be pruned. As the tree can take a heavy pruning, there are multiple pruning options, a lot of room for error, and little risk of losing the tree due to lack of pruning as a hard cut will produce a new crown of growth within a couple years.

A method I employ in my yard is to let the tree row as a single trunk to about six feet high where I let the tree branch out. Each year after the catkins blow, I prune the new growth six inches above last year’s cut. The result is a semi-formal yet informal tree that looks really good eleven and a half months of the year. (The other two weeks being when it is a bare skeleton before the new growth has fully emerged.) After six years of such pruning, the dead wood and knobbiness of the overall crown became a bit too much so I thinned out the wood inside the crown, leaving about thirty good stubs on a really bare skeleton. It looked really ugly in April, but now you probably wouldn’t be able to tell if it had been pruned at all. Because Pussy Willow sprouts off of old wood, this shape can basically be held for many years. And with the use of a short stepladder, there is always a supply of high quality twigs for floral use.

Don’t be afraid to prune Pussy Willow hard. Feel free to experiment with different shapes, forms, and ideas. If there is a plant that can take a heavy pruning and not even blink, it is Pussy Willow. Although Pussy Willow does not have as much deadwood as regular willow, pruning eliminates that as well. And pruning encourages healthy growth with good bloom quality.

When you pick Pussy Willow for freshly cut flower arrangements, it is best to pick it early, just after most of the catkins have opened. It can be picked later, but if the catkins are starting to pop, it is probably better to dry them. Dried Pussy Willow tends to lose a bit of its fresh, sharp look, but still looks pretty decent. Since the catkins sometimes droop while drying, hanging the branches upside-down from a rafter for a couple weeks will remedy that. Once dried, Pussy Willow will keep for upwards of a year or more. Curly Pussy Willow can presumably last for decades, as it is a woody stem. It blooms a couple weeks later than French Pink Pussy Willow, but can be picked as early as November if harvested for its curly twigs.

Willow twigs can be used in basket weaving and other related crafts. To make a wreath of Pussy Willow, all you need is a base frame and some florist wire to wire the twigs to the wreath base. If the desired effect is to have the twigs fan out from a core, wind the twig around the base a couple times, then let it fan out. There should only be about a foot to eighteen inches of twig when the winding is done. It is good to harvest the twigs long and trim them as needed while weaving. There are almost unlimited possibilities, just let your imagination run wild!

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