Cheerful Pussy Willows Chase Away the Mud Season Blues

In general, I don’t sing. I can’t carry a tune, and words to even the simplest of songs seem to disappear from my brain in about 20 minutes. Always have. So it was a surprise to me when, walking by a clump of pussy willows, I remembered a simple childhood tune about them and was inspired to sing it — and to ponder the joys of pussy willows. They are cheerful flowers that appear just when we need something lovely in the garden. To me they are pure fun, and not just for little children. We should all have some.

What we call pussy willows are actually the male catkins — pollen-producing parts — of two species of willows (Salix caprea and Salix discolor). Both grow wild and are available at nurseries. Pussy willows, like all willows, like wet, swampy areas. They will grow up to be small trees, but can be kept to a manageable size with yearly pruning — and now is a good time to do so.

Fortunately, for those of us who depend on pussy willow bouquets to chase away the mud season blues, the more you trim your pussy willows, the more vigorous and productive they will be. Left unpruned, pussy willows can easily reach 20 feet tall. Since they bloom on their upper branches, picking good-looking stems can be next to impossible if the bushes are allowed to get too tall.

I bring along a pole pruner when harvesting pussy willows in the wild. Any type will work, but I like mine best: an ARS brand, model 180L 1.8. Unlike other pole pruners I’ve tried, this has a handle to squeeze, just like regular pruners (not a string or handle to pull). That feature allows me to have great control. With it I can reach up and nip off pussy willows that are 12 feet or more above ground.

The pole pruner in question is made by a Japanese company, ARS, and is available from OESCO, a tool dealer in Massachusetts (www.oescoinc or 800-634-5557). Not only that, it weighs less than two pounds, so it is easy to maneuver with one hand. It is not designed for use on anything thicker than about three quarters of an inch in diameter. Cost? About $95 plus shipping and worth every penny. I also use it to cut the dead stems in my blackberry patch. I can reach in to cut them, then grab the cut stem and pull it out.

In addition to bringing spring into the house, pussy willows are great for honeybees. According to beekeeper Margot Maddock of Lyme, pollen from pussy willows is one of the first sources of food for honeybees in the spring. It is even earlier than that nuisance in the garden, chickweed, which is also good for the bees.

If you put your cut stems of pussy willows in a vase and add water, they will continue to mature and produce a yellow pollen that will eventually fall on your tablecloth. But if you put them in a dry vase, they will stay frozen in time. I’ve been known to keep pussy willows looking good on my desk for months that way.

Rooting pussy willows is easy. Cut a stem about a foot long and push it into the soil where you would like to have pussy willow growing. But be sure that you keep track of which end is up, and leave a couple of inches sticking out of the ground. If leaves or side shoots have started to grow by the time you do this, rub them off before you push the stem into the ground. Although pussy willows grow best in moist soil, they will grow in ordinary garden soil, too. You will just need to be sure the soil does not dry out until the stem is well rooted.

Because pussy willow is so easy to root, you can easily make a living wall or windbreak. I worked on a willow farm in France a few years ago. The farmers grew willow for basket making, but also created living sculpture. Young willows — two to three years old — are so flexible you can braid or weave them if they are planted close enough together. You can also tie stems together to create a tunnel for kids to play in.

Charlet Davenport of Woodstock commissioned a work of art using living willow for her Sculpturefest that is held each year in August (www.sculpturefest.org). Early spring is best time to root willows, but the artist who made the sculpture for Sculpturefest keeps willow stems in big coolers so that she always has dormant willows to root for art projects.

You don’t have to depend on nurseries and greenhouses for all your plants. If you want to pick some willow stems and plant them, they will probably grow — for free. You just need a little patience for them to reach full size.

Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. He is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of four gardening books. His website is www.gardening-guy.com.