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Pussy Willow Catkins: How To Get Catkins On Pussy Willows

Pussy Willow Catkins: How To Get Catkins On Pussy Willows


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By: Teo Spengler

Some willows produce soft, fuzzy catkins in late winter when the tree branches are bare of leaves. Both the catkins and the willow trees producing them are called “pussy willows,” and they add delight to the early spring garden. If your willow used to produce these attractive pussy willow catkins, but doesn’t any longer, you’ll naturally ask why. Read on for information on why there may be no catkins on pussy willow trees in your yard.

Pussy Willow Not Flowering

Pussy willow trees are native to many areas, including Canada and the eastern U.S. Like all willows, they are in the genus Salix. The willow species getting pussy willow catkins are American willow (Salix discolor) and goat willow (Salix caprea).

Pussy willow catkins grow on both male and female willow trees. Male catkins produce strands of tiny staminate flowers, while female catkins bear pistillate flowers. The pussy willow catkins you see in late winter are likely from the male trees, since they start getting pussy willow catkins earlier than female trees.

Gardeners keep one eye on their willows in late winter to admire the first catkins. If, one year, there are no catkins on pussy willow trees in your backyard, it is a great disappointment. This means that the tree is not producing flower buds.

Why is your pussy willow not flowering? Experts cite several reasons that you may get no catkins on pussy willow. You’ll need to walk through them one by one to figure out your tree’s problem.

How to Get Catkins on Pussy Willow

If your willow branches remain bare until the tree leafs out, you’ll be wondering how to get catkins on pussy willow. The first thing to check is irrigation. Willows love water and grow well near rivers and streams. Those planted elsewhere need plenty of irrigation to thrive.

If you have been letting your willows deal with drought on their own, or have simply forgotten to irrigate during a dry spell, the trees may be water stressed. If there are no catkins on pussy willow trees, be sure the trees are getting enough water.

Is your pussy willow not flowering because it isn’t getting enough sunshine? It might be. Willows need sun and may not flower if they are in deep shade.

Birds love to eat the catkins before they open, especially bullfinches. If it has been a hard winter for birds, it is possible they munched all the pussy willow catkins during the winter.

It’s also possible that, by pruning at the wrong time, you eliminated this year’s pussy willow crop. Prune your willow just after the catkins begin to fade.

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Why does my willow tree no longer have catkins in the spring?

Cumbria, United Kingdom

I have a dwarf willow tree which has grown very well.It has been moved three times in its 10 year history. It used to have catkins then leaves in the spring , for the last three years it has only had leaves , no catkins at all. Why is this?

Answers

It's possible that the birds have been eating them in the winter. (bullfinches).

Good evening Bob I wondered why one of my dwarf willow trees has no catkins ,one does and the other does not.

Thanks Doctor bob for replying. We do have bullfinches in the garden but if they had been eating the catkins in winter we would have seen them doing it , the tree is right near a back window and to eat them all they would have to spend alot of time on the tree , they are usually seen further away from the house. So I don't think this is the reason. Although we do have alot of blue tits which congregate in the tree as they queue up to use the bird feeder. Would they eat the catkins do you think?

Yes Jane,
Any birds but mainly bullfinches, they have had a long winter this year.

Turns out it is probably short of water which stops the catkins forming as the trees energy is put into the leaves etc , seems more likely to me then bullfinches eating all the catkin buds , as we would see them doing it and there should be one or two left , but there are never any on the tree anywhere anymore. Another theory was that I had pruned out all the branches that were going to produce catkins , but as I have never pruned it that can't be right either! Someone somewhere must know the answer to this!


Pussy Willows

Ask a gardening friend about willows and he or she will likely recall the large weeping types and all their charming if often dubious qualities. Though unquestionably graceful and picturesque at the edges of ponds and streams, these trees can grow over 70 feet tall and are notoriously weak-wooded and messy. The reputation of their moisture-seeking roots for breaching pipes and the foundations of houses is also, unfortunately, too true.

Look beyond these giants, however, and you'll find another world of smaller, more manageable willows with brightly colored stems and leaves, unique forms and textures, and stunning catkins (the "pussies" of pussy willows).

If you've ever bought cut pussy willow stems from a florist to brighten the house in winter, you might enjoy growing your own for cutting at will. The catkins appear in late winter or very early spring and are easily forced into earlier bloom if brought into a warm house. And the color range is surprising: the catkins range from typical silver gray to soft pink. Some are even ebony black.

My own introduction to willows was born of laziness. I figured it would be a lot easier to choose plants that would thrive in the low, damp areas of my property than to raise or drain those areas. And because my garden is just 1/3 acre, I wanted plantings that would mature no larger than large shrubs or small trees. While I was thinking of willows primarily as a solution to planting in wet soil, I discovered many small tree and shrub forms that deserve a place of honor in the garden.

Willow flowers are tiny and come clustered in catkins. All willows are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either all-male or all-female catkins. The male catkins are usually finer-textured, and with their colorful stamens, are also much more ornamental.

Florist's pussy willow ( Salix caprea ), also known as French, goat, or pink willow USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. The large gray catkins gradually yellow as they mature. Their appearance in late winter before the leaves is a cheering sight. Without pruning, these willows grow to 20 feet or more. They tolerate dry soil. 'Weeping Sally' is a graceful, pendulous form with arching branches, usually grafted to reach 6 to 8 feet in height it looks lovely beside a small pond.

Japanese pussy willow ( S. chaenomeloides ), also called quince-leafed pussy willow zones 5 through 8. This recent introduction is one of the best for winter cutting. Ray Prag, owner of Forestfarm nursery in Oregon, who grows more than 70 kinds of willows, says this one has the biggest catkins, up to 2-1/2 inches long. They're silvery gray and take on a pink cast as they age. Equally significant, their bare winter stems are a rich mahogany red.

This willow was brought here from Korea in the 1980s by plant explorer Barry Yinger. It grows fast, to 20 feet in three years if left unpruned. Plant it where it has room and prune heavily in late winter before leaves emerge. Even when cut back annually, it often produces up to 9-foot stems!

Black pussy willow ( S. gracilistyla melanostachys ) zones 5 through 8. The anthers on the nearly black catkins turn yellow, producing a striking show that goes on for weeks. It is very finely branched, usually all the way to the ground, and never throws long simple stems like most pussy willows. This makes it impossible to display them in the same way. Instead, use fewer, shorter stems, perhaps mixed with other plants. Or use short, 8-inch sections in small vases. Leaves turn yellow before dropping, very late. Girth equals height, usually 6 to 10 feet. Considering its bronze-purple winter stems, this plant has little "down time." Maintain black pussy willow with aggressive annual pruning as soon as catkins begin to drop and leaves are emerging.

Corkscrew willow ( S. matsudana 'Tortuosa'), also called dragon's claw willow zones 5 through 7. The branches of this 20- to 30-foot tree twist and turn every which way, and its catkins are prominent. Overall, this is one of the best for indoor decoration.

Fantail willow ( S. udensis 'Sekka' formerly S. sachalinensis 'Sekka') zones 5 through 7. Its unusual twisted stems are broad and flattened at their ends, a genetic condition botanists know as fasciation. Look for a plant with a lot of these branches, as some plants are more heavily fasciated than others. The small, silvery catkins mature to a soft yellow, and are very numerous. I counted 50 clustered along 30 inches of branch. The long, dark green leaves turn yellow in fall, and the supple branches sway in every breeze.

The best time to cut branches for forcing is when the catkin buds are just beginning to swell. It will take 2 to 4 weeks from bringing the branches indoors before the catkins emerge.

With a sharp knife, scrape off 2 inches of bark above where the branch was cut and lightly crush the scraped area. This helps the branch take up water. Arrange the branches in an attractive deep container of room-temperature water and place in bright light.

Willows are not fussy plants. All prefer full sun, but most tolerate some shade. They uniformly prefer wet, even soggy soils, but most adapt just fine to dry soils, though supplemental irrigation may be required. Some, such as S. caprea , thrive in relatively barren soil and also tolerate salty seaside conditions. All willows are fast growing and short-lived, and their wood is notably weak and prone to breaking.

Occasionally, aphids, scale, and Japanese beetles are a problem, and powdery mildew and rust diseases also sometimes appear. In every case but the Japanese beetles, pruning to the ground in spring after flowering reduces or eliminates the pest. Even normal pruning will usually rejuvenate the plant. "Willows are so vigorous that these [pests and diseases] will rarely kill the plant," says Ray Prag.

Most willows need pruning for two reasons: to maintain a convenient size and to stimulate growth of long stems for cutting. Heavy pruning (all the way to the ground) also stimulates more vigorous growth, which results in larger catkins. However desirable for the above reasons, heavy annual pruning may also produce a somewhat rangy-looking plant. If your willow is positioned in a prominent location, so that appearance is important, prune out a third of the oldest wood each year. Older wood is more susceptible to disease and pest problems. Prune just before the leaves come out, in late winter or early spring.

It's easy to propagate willows by cuttings. Start with an 8-inch leafless section of stem in spring. Plant it in a 4-inch pot filled with moist potting soil, then place it in a cool, shaded location. As soon as roots emerge from the pot's drainage hole, plant it in a permanent location or transplant to a larger container. Alternatively, you can plant willow cuttings directly in the ground in spring.

Patricia Acton writes and gardens by the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.


Growing Pussy Willows

Learn how to grow and prune these unique shrubs and their fuzzy catkins that signal spring.

Related To:

Pussy Willows

Spring budding pussy willows are also easily forced to bloom indoors.

As you’d guess from the name, pussy willows (Salix discolor) are members of the willow family. Grown as deciduous shrubs or small trees, they’re valued for the soft, furry catkins they bear in late winter, often while other plants are still dormant. Flowers and leaves emerge after the catkins.

Easy-to-grow pussy willows are happy in average to wet soils. Salix discolor can thrive in full sun to part shade, although less light means the plants won’t produce as many fuzzy catkins. Because pussy willows like moisture, they’re a good choice for planting near a pond, lake or stream in a rain garden or to help control soil erosion. Because the catkins appear so early, they’re considered one of the first signs of spring.

Pussy willow plants can be male or female. Male plants produce the most ornamental catkins, which may be white, silvery-gray or yellowish. Female pussy willows have smaller, less showy catkins.

Many gardeners don’t bother to buy pussy willows since they’re so easy to root from cuttings. Start by making a cutting 12 inches long, about the diameter of a pencil, in early spring. Make the cut on an angle.

Root the cutting in water or directly in moist soil. To root in water, simply drop the cut end into a glass of clean water. Roots should form in a few weeks. Refill the glass with more water as it evaporates.

When the cutting has plenty of roots, dig a hole in a sunny spot and amend the soil with compost or peat. Put the cutting in the hole and gently firm the soil around it. Water thoroughly.

If rainfall is scarce, keep the cutting watered until it becomes established and puts out new growth.

If you prefer, plant your cutting directly in the garden or landscape. First, use a rod to make a hole in the ground. Then insert the angled end of the cutting. If you need to pound the cutting deeper into the ground, put a flat piece of wood on top of it to keep the stem from splitting.

Even if you don’t want to add more plants to your garden, it's fun to bring pussy willow stems indoors and put them in water to force for flowers. Add the stems to the compost heap when the flowers are finished.

An annual pruning will encourage these plants to keep producing nice, straight stems to harvest for indoor arrangements. Pruning also helps control for height, since Salix discolor can top out at 20 to 30 feet tall, becoming a multi-branched tree.

The best time to prune is in late winter after the flowers have faded. Don't wait too long after flowering or you'll remove the shoots that will bear the next year's catkins.

Unless your plant is unhealthy it should recover nicely after being pruned, with lots of new shoots coming up from the roots. Your goal is to keep the size and shape you want without shearing your shrub and making it look unnatural.

Use clean, sharp anvil pruners to cut above outward-facing nodes. As new shoots appear, they’ll grow away from the center of the shrub, so they won’t cross over and rub against each other. Also remove dead or broken wood. If you cut into diseased wood, use rubbing alcohol to clean your blades between cuts.

Now cut back one-third of the oldest, thickest stems to the ground. Old stems are usually gray-colored.

Next, cut the other branches—the ones that have already flowered—to make them the same height as new growth coming from the lower, main stems.

Repeat these pruning steps each year to keep your plant compact and in shape. Most gardeners prefer to grow pussy willows as gently rounded shrubs.

If your plant is very tall or misshapen, you can rejuvenate it with a severe pruning by cutting it to just above the ground every 2 to 3 years.

Pussy willows can be grown as specimen plants, hedges or privacy screens. They’re also great for attracting wildlife to your yard. Many birds, including goldfinches and yellow warblers, make their homes in pussy willow thickets, while ruby-throated hummingbirds will visit to pluck the fuzz for their nests. Mallards and wood ducks dine on the catkins and grouse nibble young twigs and buds.


Catkins and Pussy Willow

Do you remember as a child spotting these two iconic heralders of spring? They seem to have passed me by over the last couple of years, although you they seem to be more easily seen and purchased in florists now. Except for Christmas holly it is one of the rare occasions when we bring parts of the tree into our homes.

Is it penduline swinging shape of the catkins or the furry feel of the pussy willow that appeals the most? A bit of both, I think, and more especially, their lovely sounding feline names that makes them easy to remember and evokes all sorts of images. Is there a tiny kitten curled up in that pussy willow or has a cat lost their paw? As children we called catkins sheep’s tails and imagined a field full of tailless sheep

The catkins from the Hazel tree seem to be prolific this year. They are all around in gardens, parks, woods and by the side of the verge. Not so the pussy willow it is much harder to find. We used to have an old goat willow in the garden so took its early buds for granted. But it is not an ideal garden tree and hence cannot be found easily in suburbia. I have only located one place in south west London where pussy willow can be found. The native planting at the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes is full of willow and it has a superb collection of pussy willow flowering at present.

The next time you are out for a walk go on a hunt with your children for these inspiring creations of nature and create a few more memories. Hope you enjoy the following poem.

THE WILLOW CATS

They call them pussy-willows,
But there’s no cat to see
Except the little furry toes
That stick out on the tree:
I think that very long ago,
When I was just born new,
There must have been whole pussy-cats
Where just the toes stick through—-
And every Spring it worries me,
I cannot ever find
Those willow-cats that ran away
And left their toes behind!


Weeping Pussy Willow Care

You might have noticed that the weeping pussy willow is easy to grow. You just plant it in a sunny and moist place and sit back and watch it. If the growing part is easy, the same cannot be said about the caring part. The willow branches are wild and grow beyond control if left unchecked.

Pruning

How you choose to prune your willow depends on what you grow it for in the first place. If you want to use its branches and flowers in arrangements then you’ll need to apply coppice pruning, otherwise, it’s shape pruning.

  • Coppice Pruning: It allows you to get as liberal as you like with the pruning. You can cut the whole branch at the point it joins the stem leaving the top of the shrub intact. The new branches that grow are easier to train and shape. Use wire or structures to create the wavy designs you like.
  • Shape Pruning: This one focuses on the canopy the shrub develops and aims to make it denser and more layered. Remove all dead branches and trim older ones by about one third. Do the same for younger offshoots until you get the shape of the shrub of your choice. Even as the plant turns from shrub into a full tree, it will retain the original design you had created.

Diseases and Pests

Despite the many benefits of the weeping pussy willow as it neutralizes the soil and absorbs excess water, it still has its disadvantages. The leaves and flowers are on the menu for many herbivores from deer to rabbits, squirrels, and beavers. However, the biggest problem you’ll have is often with pests.

caterpillars, scale insects, and aphids are common pests. They eat the leaves, munch their way into the supple branches, and damage the meticulous design you worked for hours to achieve. You can apply neem oil or pyrethrin sprays to get rid of the infestation. Be wary of spraying the flowers since they’re more sensitive to chemicals than leaves or stalks.

Another enemy that leaves its mark on the willow is the willow leaf beetle. It feeds on the leaves and a few beetles can strip your willow down to the bare branches. You should use bacillus thuringiensis, or BT for short, to eliminate the beetles as well as any caterpillars that nest in the shrub.

Of the many diseases that afflict the weeping pussy willow, the following stand out.

  • Leaf blight: a fungal disease that causes the leaves and branches to droop and wilt. If left untreated, the shrub could become stunted with few or no flowering. Remove all infected leaves and branches and spray a copper fungicide to treat this infection.
  • Twig blight: a less serious disease than the leaf blight, this bacterial infection appears as dark stripes along the trunk and branches and could develop into cankers.
  • Powdery mildew: an infection that leaves a white residue on the leaves. It is mostly harmless although it makes the shrub lose its healthy colors. You can treat it with neem oil.
  • Rust: if you notice reddish or orange spots on the underside of the leaves, that’s a fungal infection. Just remove the infected leaves to prevent the spread of the disease. It doesn’t impact the growth or flowering of the shrub.


I think I pruned at the wrong time last year. I pruned late Oct. or early Nov. (in Connecticut). It's March now and I have no new growth and only two or three buds. The rest of my willow is barren! I'm very discouraged. I think I damaged it badly by pruning at the wrong time. Any way to get it going again?

You did prune at the wrong time, but never fear, the damage is only temporary. If you need to prune the tree, prune it now and then it will bloom for you next year. It only blooms on new growth, and when you pruned in the fall, you cut off the new growth. It will have new growth again this summer and will bloom off that next year.


Watch the video: How to Grow Pussy Willows