Last updated 03/14/2023
photo © Carolyn Summer
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Pussy willows provide one of the earliest spring wake-up calls, as it is usually the first to bloom of all Northeastern shrubs. It was a family custom to go out in spring as soon as the snows melted and gather the pussy willow branches with their fresh catkins. (For those who have not experienced this, pussy willow catkins are small, furry, silver buds.) Some branches were left out to dry to be used as everlastings and some were ”forced“ in a vase of water until the catkins bloomed with tiny little yellow ribbons. If you are planting a garden with children in mind, pussy willow is an excellent choice. Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eat pussy willow buds and the dense branching habit makes this eight to fifteen foot tall shrub or small tree a preferred nesting spot for goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). Seed capsules appear from early to late spring. Pussy willows are tough and adaptable and can be grown in wet or average soils in sun or partial shade.
My love of pussy willows has been encouraged by learning that all of our native willows are host plants for Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), and 454 other butterfly and moth caterpillars. Willows are often the first to bloom in spring, and thus provide a critical food supply for early rising bees and other insects when little else is available. Returning neotropical migrants, like the Willow Flycatcher, which often will nest in willows, depend on these insects for food.
In addition to pussy willows, there are many species of native willows to choose from for wildlife benefits as well as streamside erosion control. A few of these, such as silky willow (Salix sericea) and sandbar willow (Salix exigua), are commercially available from specialty nurseries. Two others, black willow (Salix nigra) and peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides), are reasonable facsimiles of the Asian weeping willows and make a good substitute. Both are tall, with similar long, slender (willowy) leaves. While the branches do not hang quite as pendulously as the weeping willow, the overall effect is similar and may be reinforced by training branches downward. Black willows are not fast growing, but can eventually become quite large. Peachleaf willow is better adapted to smaller landscapes. Dune willow (Salix syrticola) is a lovely shrub with arching branches and attractive furry leaves and twigs, giving the plant a silvery glow. Another good willow for smaller gardens, this willow can take dryer sites.
Perhaps this article will inspire you to consider planting some native willows. Willows are amazingly easy to transplant, for some of them, one can simply cut a twig and stick it in moist soil. Good nursery sources include local Catskill Native Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery (mail order) and Southern Tier Nursery (mail order). (Please avoid purchasing the European pussy willows (Salix caprea or S. cinerea), frequently offered at nurseries, which, unfortunately, cannot support our native caterpillars.)