Spring has finally arrived in our little corner of the world! It came on the wings of robins and was followed by crocuses, and croaking frogs. We hurried it along by planting tulips in our greenhouse, and have been happily harvesting away at them now for the last few weeks. With any luck when our crop is finished inside our field planted tulips should be just about ready to go.
The magic of spring touches everything, and inspires some of the year’s most anticipated beauty. For me, the sight of the first pussy willows is an exciting one, it’s once of nature’s first nuances that the seasons are shifting.
I remember being fascinated by them as child, and thought of them as little furry kitty-toes on trees. They grew along the border of my school playground, and my friends and I would snap off their branches and pretend to use their soft tips as makeup brushes at recess.
I’ve always made a point to bring them into my house every spring. I love the way they last forever in a vase without of water, and I love how easy they propagate to form new plants.
Pussy willows, or Salix discolor are native to North America and dioecious. This means plants are either male or female. The fuzzy tips we collect are flowers called catkins which are found on male plants. Female trees flower later, and produce smaller catkins. They’re both basically furry flower buds, and I couldn’t imagine anything cuter if I tried.
After their fuzzy stage male catkins they develop an aura of yellow pollen. Because pussy willows are one of the first flowers in our northern climate their pollen is a very important food source for the bees, but this relationship works both ways. Willows don’t have to compete with other sources of pollen in the early spring, so they get the undivided attention from hungry pollinators.
I am always mindful of this when foraging pussy willows making sure to spread my harvest out over many trees, and never taking more than a third of what’s on any single tree.
If you are out collecting your own pussy willows make sure that you’re mindful of how much you’re taking. Be kind to the trees by making clean and careful cuts. Try to place your cuts where the branch makes a Y-shape. This will encourage new growth, and ensure you’ll have cutting material for seasons to come. Pussy willows are also home to many songbirds, and hummingbirds too.
Propagating Pussy Willows
One of the most magical things about pussy willows is how easily they are to propagate. If you’ve never tried it before, I highly recommend it. It’s fascinating to watch them transform into plants of their own, plus you’ll be helping the bees, and the environment. I think you can safely call that a win-win, maybe even a win-win-win?
When taking cuttings you want to find new growth that’s springy. Old growth is usually grey, and while that will likely send out new roots by choosing new growth you’ll ensure robust and vigorous trees.
Select branches that are about the same width as a pencil, and take about 30cm (12″) lengths. You can place your cuttings, or slips as gardeners call them, into a vase with fresh water in a bright room.
If you’re feeling adventurous take a few cuttings from other woody plants in your garden (lilacs are a good option) and pop them into the same vase. Pussy willows contain a natural rooting hormone that will promote propagation of other plants too, and have been used for centuries to aid in their production.
Alternatively, you may also place your cuttings directly into potting soil. I use a propagation tray with a liner that I keep about 5cm (2″) of water in.
Regardless of the method you choose in about 3-4 weeks you’ll notice new white roots at the base of your slips. At this stage you can pot them up, or plant them directly in their new location.
Choosing the Best Location
Pussy willows are often found growing near water; in ditches, along streams, creeks, and ponds. If you have somewhere that has poor drainage your new pussy willows will be very happy there. It’s important that they have access to water, and that they’re not too close to septic beds or water lines as their roots will travel for water which could be problematic.
Pussy willows prefer full sun to partial shade, and they love soil with a high pH. If you’re living in Nova Scotia like us, this won’t be a problem, as our soil is generally acidic.
Harvest and Caring
If you want to hold on to your pussy willows forever then keep them out of water, and they will preserve perfectly. They’re useful in wreaths, and anywhere you’re using dried flowers.
I often take long cuts that are beneficial for the trees, but require a little bit of cleaning up after. I like to keep the bunches we bring to the market nice and long, but I always set aside smaller branches to use in vases and centerpieces.
Pussy willows are just the beginning of this seasonal flower journey, and I can’t wait to share with you all the beautiful things we’re growing this year! I hope if you have some space, and some time you can try to propagate your own pussy willows this spring so you and the bees can enjoy them for years to come.