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Linda Naeve, Reiman Gardens, (515) 294-2710,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Pussy Willows Usher in Spring

By Linda Naeve
Extension Coordinator,
Reiman Gardens

A specific fragrance, a special song or a familiar place may bring back warm memories of people or events. The sight of pussy willow trees in the spring always brings back wonderful memories from my childhood. My aunt and uncle had the largest pussy willow tree I had ever seen growing near the shores of their small farm pond. Nearly every Easter, my aunt and I would cut several branches with many soft, furry buds.

This week's Reiman's Pick - the pussy willow tree - is one of the first plants to wake up after winter. Although most plants are still dormant, pussy willows bloom early in the season with a display of soft buds that open into puffs of delicate, yellow flowers.

The North American pussy willow, Salix discolor, is native to wetlands of Canada, and the eastern United States. Its equivalent in Europe is "goat willow," Salix caprea. Like all plants in the Salix, or willow, genus, pussy willow trees are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. The flowers on willows, called "catkins," contain numerous tiny flowers. The buds on the male pussy willow tree look different and generally are showier than those on the female tree.
Pussy willow trees grow in wet environments in their native habitat and are the ideal plant for a wet or poorly drained area. However, if given ample moisture, they can be grown successfully in nearly any backyard. They do best in full sun but tolerate partial shade.

Many gardeners plant pussy willow trees in their landscape for the beauty of their gray, silky buds and flowers. Unfortunately, pussy willows have invasive roots and should be planted away from septic tank fields, sewer lines or water lines. The invasive nature of their roots is an advantage, however, when they are planted to prevent erosion along stream and pond banks.

Pussy willows are considered a small tree or a multistemmed shrub that can grow up to 30 feet in height. If left alone, they become bushy and unkempt in appearance. Pussy willows require severe pruning nearly every year to keep the plants strong and healthy. Don't be afraid to remove long branches to enjoy in spring arrangements.

Ed Moran, assistant garden superintendent at Reiman Gardens, uses a European technique called "coppice pruning" or "stumping" on the pussy willow trees at Reiman Gardens. Every spring, after the plants have flowered, but before leaves start to appear, he cuts the stems to within six to eight inches of the ground. This severe pruning encourages vigorous regrowth and prolific flowering the following spring. It also keeps the plant more compact with long, straight stems free of side branches. Coppice pruning maintains the plant as a multi-stemmed shrub.

My memories of pussy willow don't end on Easter Sunday. I always took the branches home, removed the lower buds and put them into a large vase of water. They made a long-lasting spring arrangement. I was surprised and pleased to see the branches begin to leaf out once the flowers faded. When my mother thought it was time to discard them, I was amazed to find that the stems had developed roots in the water!

Rooted pussy willow branches can be planted in the landscape when the roots are 3 to 4 inches in length and after the threat of frost is past. Keep them well watered throughout the summer.

You can see beautiful pussy willows in the Patty Jischke Children's Garden at Reiman Gardens. They have ushered in spring with a spectacular display.
To learn more about the Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University visit us on the Web at:


Editors: Two color photos, suitable for publication, are available at right. Click on each thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The top picture's fullsize photo is 256K and the bottom picture's fullsize photo is 320K.

Caption: Pussy willow 1

Caption: Pussy willow 2

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