Learn about the many benefits of this floral favorite.
Pussywillow (Salix discolor) is the most readily recognized American native willow, for a few weeks each spring. Its uniquely attractive display and natural distribution through some of our most populated areas have brought fame and marketability to this water loving species.
American pussywillow is a deciduous large shrub or small tree, reaching up to twenty feet tall and wide. Its rounded leaves are shiny dark green above and grey-green or blue-green below. The silvery, silky male and female flowers (catkins) are borne separately, prior to leaves opening in late winter or early spring. Pussywillow is hardy in zones 2-7.
Pussywillow’s range encompasses a diversity of climates, with a greater than 150 degrees difference between the hottest high temperatures and the coldest low temperatures. Known in eastern North America as a bog, stream, or wetland plant, it grows on the north slopes of the Black Hills as well. It ranges from the Canadian maritime provinces to eastern British Columbia, south to Maryland and west to Colorado and Idaho.
The first attribute most of us consider regarding pussywillow is the fuzzy buds often used in floral arrangements. They are also used in religious and cultural ceremonies: as replacements for palm fronds on Palm Sunday and as decorations for lunar New Year celebrations, among others. But this ornamental value only scratches the surface of its value.
In its native habitats, pussywillow often is a pioneer or nurse plant. Wetland areas that have burned or where trees have fallen may be quickly colonized by this species. Also, once established, it has wonderful regenerative abilities that allow it to experience significant stem dieback and still re-sprout from its expansive root system. For this reason pussywillow is often used in a variety of stream restoration and other ecological improvement projects to minimize erosion problems by quickly colonizing the once grading work has been completed. It is also useful as a strip planting for agricultural applications, absorbing sediment and nutrient runoff.
All willows, including pussywillow, contain salicylates - the compounds that were used in the precursor to aspirin. Throughout history and across cultures, willow has been used for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Herbalists continue to use tinctures of willow bark to treat symptoms from joint and muscle pain, to fever, headache and menopausal discomforts. Additionally, it may help protect against some types of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Pussywillow requires constantly damp soil and full sun. It is a perfect candidate for pond plantings as well as rain gardens. In cultivation, plan on periodically cutting it back hard due to canker and galls. It works best in a supporting role, not as the star of the show; best for those with a real love for native plants.
Again, due to its tendency to be bothered by borers, beetles, galls and canker, periodic renewal pruning will be required. The good news is that it is well adapted to regeneration from its root system.