Welcome, Soft Harbinger of Spring: Oh Come to Me, My Sweet Willow…

Salix discolor: North American native pussy willow © 2010 Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow – Pitcher by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela TGE

Welcome! Oh welcome sweet, silver-tipped harbinger of springtime. Is there anything that makes a heart race faster than the sight of the first pussy willow catkins in March? I should probably install a blinking sign on the back of my vehicle; “Warning: I break for pussy willow”. Yes, it’s true. I am quite the springtime roadside hazard. Fortunately, the mud-slicked trails I travel in search of Salix discolor, (as our North American native pussywillow is formally called), are usually avoided by traffic at this time of year. Yesterday afternoon, after a bit of swampy adventure, I returned home with a flush in my cheeks and armfuls of downy-budded branches. I love the beautiful, soft texture and the sculptural quality of pussy willow arrangements.

Salix discolor is a North American native shrub or small, understory tree, (5-15′ tall and perhaps 8′ wide). Often found beside brooks and forest streams, or in low-lying thickets and swamps from Canada to Georgia, the pussy willow is hardy to USDA zones 4-7. Stands of Salix discolor form important wetland habitat for nesting birds and other creatures. Mindful of this, I have been carefully harvesting where shrubs are plentiful, and making clean cuts with my Felco pruners.

Pussy willow are easy to propagate from springtime cuttings, (this is a good project to try with kids!). Simply harvest pliant, year-old branches, (approximately 18-24″ long), and keep stems in a vase of water in a sunny spot. Plant whips outside when roots have formed, right after the last frost date in your area. This year I harvested some branches to use in everlasting arrangements, and some to propagate for my garden. Pussy willow make wonderful, textural-interst shrubs for wetland transition areas in the naturalized landscape. I hope to propagate enough for future cutting as well as for enjoying in the permanent landscape. Remember, these native shrubs are fantastic cover for small birds in the garden too. If you harvest pussy willow for arrangements, and would like the catkins to remain in their silvery, bud-like state, place them in a vase without water to halt development. The preserved twigs and branches can be used in wreaths or other decorations, and will remain beautiful throughout the year. If placed in water, the catkins will slowly develop a greenish cast or “bloom” and eventually, alternate, oval-shaped leaves will spout along the branches. Plant Salix discolor in a garden low spot, where it will catch spring run-off and moisture throughout the seasons…

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow © Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor – vase by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela at TGE


Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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4 Replies to “Welcome, Soft Harbinger of Spring: Oh Come to Me, My Sweet Willow…”

  1. Laurrie

    Lovely shots.. the buds always look like little furry animals. I have a wet poorly draining spot at a focal point in my yard (a witch hazel is suffering there now), and need an artistic large shrub with some eye interest. Would a pussy willow as a stand alone specimen shrub be good or too rangy and messy? Is it interesting after the catkins go? I’ll have to do some research, but your great photos and closeups have me thinking.

  2. Michaela

    Hi Laurie, Thanks for your sweet comments. You know, I think Salix discolor is great for naturalized areas. But for a focal point, I would choose something else. If you really love pussy willow, Spring Hill Nursery, (and probably others), has a weeping pussy willow, Salix caprea. I believe their cultivar is grafted on S. discolor stock… but I’m not looking at their site. Salix caprea in general, both the species and the pendula cultivars might be a good choice if you want a focal point willow. Sadly, I wouldn’t call it a multi-season shrub… for that I would steer you in the direction of Viburnum. But, if you go with a pendulous cultivar, you will at least have intriguing form to work with. Hope that is helpful. It’s nice to hear from you …
    Happy Eve of Springtime!
    xo Michaela

  3. Victoria


    How breathtaking.

    There are crocus peeking through the ground just under the kitchen window, and robins are strolling around the front of the house.

    A crabapple is blooming in Central Park, and the willows were wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.

    Is spring trying to sneak around the corner?

    I hope so.

  4. Michaela

    Happy Spring Victoria ! Lovely to hear from you on this beautiful morning. Thank you for stopping by, and for your sweet words. Enjoy the gorgeous weather and raise your glass to the first day of Spring!

    xo Michaela

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