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Smart Gardening in 2020: Plant pussy willows, a pollinator-friendly, powerhouse of a shrub!


Pussy willows (Salix discolor), a large 15-20 foot shrub native to Minnesota and much of northern U.S. is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. Pussy willows provide some of the earliest flowers and pollen for honey and other native bees.

The foliage also supports native butterfly caterpillars. This fast growing shrub prefers wet sites but will tolerate a wide variety of soils.

What is a pussy willow?

"YouBetcha" Stick Sculpture made out of
willows by artist Patrick Dougherty,
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Photo: Jim Douglas
Willows are dioecious with only male flowers on 1 plant and only female flowers on another plant. The male flowers are showier and what we think of a pussy willow flowers. 

The female flowers can disperse and move with the wind….similar to cottonwood flowers, and may be a nuisance. Male flowering plants are usually what is sold in the garden centers. You do not need plants of both sexes to get flowers…planting one male plant will give you showy flowers. 

Regardless of flower sex, this species is vigorous grower. Cutting the plants back to the ground will produce new shoots with many flowers. 

Cuttings can be woven to make a wattle fence or garden border, or if you are ambitions look at what artist Patrick Dougherty has done with the "Youbetcha" Stick Sculpture at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

A powerhouse, energy-producing shrub

Cornell University is working extensively on willows for bioenergy, see Willopedia. Wood chips made from willows can be dried and pelletized to produce heat and/or electricity and biofuels such as ethanol. 

They have a "low nutrient and nitrogen demand compared to other [energy] crops." 

This shrub produces a dense cluster of stems on each plant, so they can be also planted to form living snowfences, privacy hedges, riparian buffers or used to restore stream banks. 

Researchers have developed many hybrid willows from additional species of fast growing European and Asian willows that also produce attractive spring flowers. 

Read about the chance of invasiveness and the complex chromosome number and seed set of these willows. To date, no willows are on the invasive plant lists for any state in the U.S.

Where can I buy it?

According to the UMN Plant Information Line, several retail nurseries in Minnesota sell Salix discolor, native pussy willows, including Gertens, Inver Grove Heights; Outback Nursery, Hastings; Prairie Restoration, Princeton; Prairie Moon, Winona, Minnesota.

Goat willow or French pussy willow, Salix caprea, is native to Europe and Asia, and has many cultivars grown for their attractive stem color or shape. 

Locally Dundee Nursery lists several goat willow cultivars for sale at their nursery. Check your favorite garden center in the spring for pussy willows. I look forward to planting 2 or 3 Salix discolor in in the sunny, native section of my garden this spring.

For more information see:
Pussy Willow - A valuable native plant

--Mary H. Meyer, Extension Horticulturist & Professor
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