Japanese Pussy Willow Information – How To Grow A Japanese Pussy Willow


By: Teo Spengler

Everyone’s heard of pussy willows, the willows that produce ornamental fuzzy seed pods in spring. But what is a Japanese pussy willow? It’s the showiest pussy willow shrub of all. If you are interested in growing Japanese pussy willows, read on. You’ll find tips on how to grow a Japanese pussy willow and lots of other Japanese pussy willow information.

Japanese Pussy Willow Information

The Japanese pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides) is a type of willow shrub native to the east. It can grow to 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4 m.) tall and should be spaced quite far apart given its wide spread.

Most gardeners who start growing Japanese pussy willows do so for their ornamental value. The large red flower buds appear on the shrub’s branches in early spring. They open into gorgeous pink and silver fuzzy catkins.

How to Grow a Japanese Pussy Willow

Japanese pussy willow thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. If you live in one of these zones, growing Japanese pussy willows is a snap.

Plant this showy pussy willow shrub in either full or partial sun. It is also quite tolerant of different types of soil. However, your plant will grow best in full sun sites with moist soil.

Japanese Pussy Willow Care

Japanese pussy willow care is not difficult. You’ll have to give the willow regular irrigation, particularly just after transplant while it is developing a root system. But even after the plant is mature, it requires watering.

Pruning is not an essential part of its care, but the shrub accepts pruning, even severe pruning. Many gardeners growing Japanese pussy willows clip off branches and display them in vases indoors.

If you love your willow shrub and want more plants, don’t plan on growing Japanese pussy willows from seed. Instead, propagate from cuttings. Like most willows, this showy plant propagates readily from cuttings. You can use woody stem cuttings, softwood cuttings or even semi-hardwood cuttings.

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What Is A Japanese Pussy Willow: Guide To Growing Japanese Pussy Willows - garden

Fantailed Pussy Willows starting to bud in 3′ of snow.

I decided today was the day to trudge through the snow and cut some pussy willows to force indoors. I have two Fantail Pussy Willow bushes (Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ – Japanese Fantail or Dragon Willow) that I started from cuttings off a neighbor’s bush. They are about 5 years old and perfectly happy in a rather boggy bed next to the patio.

The branches flatten and curl in the most unexpected ways!

Every spring I cut the plants back severely (maybe 10″ from the ground), harvesting the wonderfully contorted and curled branches to force indoors. Once the catkins have popped open, I remove the water from the vase and just let them dry. When it is time to start forcing quince or forsythia, I retire the dried willow to a big bucket I have in the cellar. One of these days, I intend to use them as the spokes for a fabulous basket.

Set in a bucket of water, this year’s cuttings will probably set the catkins within a week or so.


How to grow a pussy willow tree

Grow pussy willow in moist bit well-drained soil in sun to partial shade. Support the stem with a stake initially, until it’s established. Keep well watered in its first year. Remove damaged or crossing stems and then thin out stems from the crown each autumn, rather than trimming them, which can cause congestion.

Growing pussy willow: jump links

Where to grow a pussy willow tree

The Kilmarnock or pussy willow has a compact weeping habit and is suitable for small gardens. It does best in full sun but will grow in light shade. The branches will eventually grow right down to the ground so any plants growing close by should to be low, ground-covering, and tolerant of shade. Alternatively, grow a pussy willow tree in a courtyard or surrounded by a hard surface such as gravel or paving.

How to plant pussy willow

Pussy willow is an easy tree to grow on any reasonable soil as long as it’s fertile and doesn’t dry out quickly. While pussy willow does best in moisture retentive soil, it suffers in waterlogged ground, unlike some other willows.

Planting a pussy willow tree is best done in autumn so it can become well established before the growing season. However, spring or even summer planting is fine as long as the tree is watered regularly during dry spells in its first year. Plant the tree so the top of the rootball is at the same level as the surrounding soil, backfill around the rootball and firm the soil around the roots to avoid leaving air pockets. Water thoroughly to settle the soil.

Supporting the tree with a stake is important as the top-heavy head of branches is likely to catch the wind and damage the newly developing roots. Secure the tree to the stake with a rubber tree tie, or a wide flexible material such as old nylon tights. Check the tie for rubbing from time to time and loosen if necessary.

Where to buy pussy willow online

How to care for pussy willow

Apart from regular watering until the tree is established, little care is needed during the first few years apart from removing any dead or damaged stems. Thin out older trees that become dense and congested by removing entire stems back to the main framework of branches. Avoid shortening stems as this will make congestion worse by encouraging lots of shoots to develop.

How to propagate pussy willow

It’s not possible to propagate pussy willow trees because the shape of the tree is achieved by grafting goat willow (Salix caprea) onto a standard rootstock. This means that if you take cuttings from your pussy willow, you will end up with a goat willow, which is not usually considered ‘garden worthy’.

Growing pussy willow: problem solving

Pussy willow tree is easy to grow and usually trouble-free given the right growing conditions.

The fungal disease anthracnose, scab and canker can sometimes occur, causing brown or black spots on the leaves or young stems, and lesions on the stems. Shoots or larger stems can die off. Prune out dead or dying stems and any affected with lesions. Aphids and caterpillars sometimes appear on the tree, but these are part of the ecosystem of your garden and provide food for birds, so should be welcomed. They rarely cause a problem as long as the tree is healthy and growing strongly.


Pussy Willows: The First Flowers of Spring!

When gardeners think of the first flowers of spring, they often have some of the spring bulbs in mind: snowdrops (Galanthus), crocus (Crocus), winter aconite (Eranthis), etc. And there is no doubt they are early bloomers. But in many climates, they don’t even come close in bloom season to the earliest bloomers of all: the pussy willows.

Japanese pink pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’). Photo: http://www.groupon.co.uk

Bulbs have to wait for the snow to melt in order to bloom, but pussy willows jump the gun: they’ll bloom right through the snow, as soon as the ground beneath has begun to thaw. Depending on where you live, they can be in bloom from January (in the mildest climates) to May (in the coldest regions).

What is a Pussy Willow?

There is not one species of pussy willow, but many.

Weeping French pussy willow (Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’). Photo: http://www.studiofmp.com

Any willow (Salix) with relatively large or striking furry flower clusters is likely to be considered a pussy willow. The “fur” is usually silvery to white hairs, likened to a kitten’s fur. This type of inflorescence is called a catkin, a word derived from old Dutch for kitten. Unlike most flowers, catkins have no petals. Their covering of dense hair is designed to protect delicate flowers from the cold and, inevitably, pussy willows come from cool to cold climates.

Pussy willows are usually shrubs, some tall, some short, some ground-hugging. A few are even sizeable trees.

Male catkins covered in stamens on French pussy willow (Salix caprea). Photo: Kurt Stüber, Wikimedia Commons

Willows are dioecious (an annoying word with an excessive number of vowels) which simply means that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Now, I don’t want to sound sexist here, but male willows do make the prettiest catkins. Not only are they often larger than female flowers, but they tend to keep their oval shape (in many species, female catkins droop). Also, they never produce the fluffy floating willow fuzz full of tiny seeds that burst out of female flowers later in spring and seem instantly drawn to dark fabrics hung on your clothesline. Even more interesting, male flowers bear multiple yellow stamens (red or pink in some species) that positively make the catkin glow.

Black pussy willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’). Photo http://www.willowsvermont.com.

There is a downside to male willows, though: some people are allergic to their pollen. (Willows are nowhere near the list of top allergy causers, but still…)

Growing Pussy Willows

Pussy willows (here Salix discolor) are generally cold climate plants and many will bloom right through the snow. Photo: http://www.enews.tech

Pussy willows are generally cold-climate plants … and they really have to be to be appreciated. There’s something about a cold, snowy winter that really makes them stand out from the crowd. If winters where you live are balmy and warm, you have plants growing all year long anyway, so no need to read further*. But if your winters include endless days of frozen landscape, pussy willows will bloom for you: yes, in some cases, even north of the Arctic Circle.

*There are willows that will grow in tropical climes (Humboldt’s willow, Salix humboldtiana, for example), but willows with showy catkins seem to be largely restricted to colder zones.

If you like weird, try the fantail willow (S. udensis ’Sekka’), popularly grown for use in dried flower arrangements. Photo: gardendrum.com

Willows are renowned for their love of moist soils and many grow in swamps, along rivers and lakes or other damp places, but most species adapt well to normal garden soils. And there are also dryland willows naturally adapted to less humid soils. Even so, you’ll want to keep your pussy willows moist until they are well-established.

Sun is a must: willows just aren’t shade plants. Even partial shade will result in an open growth habit and stingy bloom. Fertilizer? Why bother! Pussy willows will find plenty of nutrients in just about any soil. And they’re not gluttons anyway (many grow naturally in almost pure sand).

Cut willows to the ground after bloom to control their growth. Photo:http://www.theorganisedgardener.co.uk/

Taller pussy willows will grow into trees if you let them. Don’t. Pussy willow catkins need to be seen up close, not way up in some tall tree. And tree-size willows tend to have very long, very invasive roots. Willows that remain of a modest size, even if that size is due to pruning, will have a shorter root system that won’t go far. So, cut back bigger willows periodically, practically to the ground (a technique called coppicing): don’t worry, they’ll quickly grow back. If you prune right after they bloom, they’ll have time to produce new branches in time to bloom the following year.

Giant pussy willow (Salix x ‘Winter Glory’). Photo: springmeadownursery.com

Pussy willows are very popular for erosion control, as they produce copious roots and do so rapidly. Plus, many will grow with their roots mostly in water or are able to handle spring flooding. And willows can be used as hedges or, in the case of dwarf species, groundcovers. The more enterprising gardener will discover they can use willow stems in basketry or train pussy willows as wattle fences, arbors or tunnels. In northern areas, coppiced willows are often used to create living noise and snow barriers along highways.

You can purchase pussy willows, of course, but they are so simple to grow from cuttings, why waste your money? Spring, summer or fall, cut a 1 foot (30 cm) stem of the willow of your choice (get the owner’s permission, of course!) and stick it in the ground. Water well. It will be rooted and growing in no time. Some willow specialists will even sell you willow cuttings by mail.

Forcing Pussy Willows

Pussy willow branches are easy to force. Photo: http://www.etsy.com

You can force pussy willows into bloom well before they’d flower outdoors. To do so, wait until you see a slight swelling of the buds (usually by mid-January), then cut branches and bring them indoors. Place the stems in your bathtub and leave them to soak in warm water overnight (this will thaw them out gently), then place them upright in a vase of water in a cool, dark spot until the buds start to open. Then just move them to wherever you want: sun is not required.

Forced pussy willows are an integral part of part of Palm Sunday and Easter celebrations in many cultures, notably Orthodox churches. Photo: http://www.stephenmorrisauthor.com

Drying Pussy Willows

Simple! Just harvest the stems when the catkins reach the stage you prefer (some people like them big and fluffy, others denser and smaller) and stand them in a vase without water. They’ll dry on their own and will keep for years.

Some Choice Species

There are dozens of species of pussy willows you can try. Here are a few:

American Pussy Willow (S. discolor). Big silvery catkins. H: 16–26 ft (5–8 m). D: 13 ft (4 m). Zones 2–8
Black Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’). Small black catkins, orange anthers. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 5–9
Blue Streak Willow (S. acutiflora ‘Blue Streak’). Silver gray catkins. Chalk blue stems. H: 15-30 ft (5-10 m). D: 7-15 ft (3-5 m). Zone 3b-8
Corkscrew Willow (S. babylonica pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’, sy. S. matsudana ‘Tortuosa’). Small white catkins, corkscrew branches. Popular in dried arrangements. 20–30 ft (6–9 m). D: 23–26 ft (7–8 m). Zones 5–8.
Fantail Willow (S. udensis ‘Sekka’). Silvery catkins twisting, flattened stems. Popular in dried arrangements. H: 10–15 ft (3–5 m). D.: 10–20 ft (3–6 m). Zones 5–7.
French Pussy Willow (S. caprea). Large silvery-gray catkins. H: 20-30 ft (6–9 m). D: 16 ft (4 m). Zones 4b-9
Giant Pussy Willow (S. x ‘Winter Glory’, aka S. chaenomeloides). Huge silvery catkins up to 3 inches (7 cm) long, red stems. H: 20 ft (6 m). D: 13 ft (4 m). Zones 6–8
Japanese Pink Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’): Male variety with reddish pink catkins. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 4–9
Miyabe Willow (Salix miyabeana). Long grey catkins, reddish stems. H: 20-50 ft (6-15 m). D: 6 ft (2 m). Zones 4-8
Prairie Pussy Willow (S. humilis). Silvery catkins. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 10 ft (3 m). Zones 3–8
Red Pussy Willow (S. koriyanagi ‘Rubykins’). Tiny reddish catkins: H: 6 ft (1.8 m). D: 6 ft (1.8 m) Zones 4b-7
Rose-gold Pussy Willow (S. gracilistyla). Gray catkin with a pink tinge, then golden. H: 10 ft (3 m). D: 7 ft (2 m). Zones 5–9
Violet Willow(S. daphnoides). Silver gray catkins. Violet stems. 15-30 ft (5-10 m). D: 7-15 ft (3-5 m). Zone 2b-8
Weeping French Pussy Willow (S. caprea ‘Kilmarnock’). Large silvery-gray catkins. Weeping habit. H: 3-6 ft (1-2 m). D: 3 ft (1 m). Zones 4b-9

Sources

It’s often possible to buy willow cuttings by mail. Here are some sources:

Canada*
Lakeshore Willows (mostly willows for basketry)

*Bluestem Willows, once the go-to source for all things willow in Canada, has closed, but its website is still an excellent source of information.

Pussy willows: harbingers of spring since the dawn of humankind!


Growing Zones

The Japanese variegated willow grows in zones 5 though 7. It can tolerate temperatures down to -15 degrees F, with short times down to -20 degrees F. This plant does better with moderate to wet conditions and may require a good deal of water in arid and semi-arid climates.

This plant is often used as a low to medium height bush, shrub or tree. Because it thrives on wet conditions, it grows exceptionally well next to a pond or stream. If allowed to grow to its natural height, it will often reach 6 feet tall. In some growing conditions, the Japanese variegated willow can reach 10 feet tall.

  • Japanese variegated willows grow to between 3 and 6 feet tall with a spread of between 3 and 6 feet.
  • In some growing conditions, the Japanese variegated willow can reach 10 feet tall.

Plant the Japanese variegated willow in full sun. In general, prune in late winter to maintain size and maintain the white and pink variagations. To keep a particular specimen small, prune again in July to reduce the amount of new growth. Water frequently. The variegated Japanese willow can take a long time to make the transition from a bush to a tree. However, once it begins to grow from a single main trunk, it can grow quite quickly.



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