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Plants in the Salix genus are second only to oak in the number of insect larvae they host. Salix discolor is a lovely and valuable plant for home landscapes.  As the earliest willow to produce nectar and pollen in spring, it attracts hordes of specialized bees, butterflies, wasps, ants, and beetle grubs.  Pussy willow heralds early spring with stems dotted in fluffy, soft, silvery catkins that appear on male plants.  Some birds, especially hummingbirds, use the soft fuzz to line their nests. As temperatures warm, the silky catkins open to reveal yellow pollen, which is transferred to the smaller, greenish catkins on female plants.  Salix discolor is named for the stark contrast between the dark green leaf surface and its pale underside, which helps to distinguish it from other willows.

 

Pussy willow thrives in wetter areas that most other plants can’t tolerate, such as old fields and swamps, roadsides, lake and pond margins, wetland shorelines, and disturbed areas. It tolerates proximity to black walnut but shouldn’t be sited near septic systems or other underground water sources; the roots tend to seek out water sources.  It spreads by rhizomes and forms dense thickets if allowed.  

 

This is the plant for rain gardens or those low, boggy areas that tend to stay wet after heavy rains.  Pussy willows can help stabilize banks of ponds or creeks, and they are useful as accent plants, in woodland gardens, or in mass plantings.  When kept trimmed, they make great hedges and screens.  To ensure fruits and seeds, 3-5 plants should be sited close to each other.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 12-20’ tall and 4-20’ wide.

 

Prefers full sun to part sun.

 

Prefers moist, loamy soils, but adapts readily to other soils, and tolerates drier soils better than other willows.

 

Flowers appear on catkins in February and March.  Male catkins are 1-2” long with yellow-tipped stamens.  Female catkins are 1-4” long with greenish styles.

 

Elliptical leaves are widest near the pointed tip.  Leaves are dark green with pale-green-to-white undersides.

 

Trunk is typically multi-stemmed.  Young bark is smooth and gray, while older bark is gray and furrowed.  Branches tend to be brittle and weak. 

 

Pruning to the ground every few years not only controls height but also encourages a rounded shape, increases space between branches, produces larger catkins, and helps prevent disease, fungus, and insect problems.  Pussy willow is easily propagated by plunging a foot-long stem from the previous year’s growth directly into the ground in mid-spring.  It even produces its own rooting hormones to help the branch take root.

 

Wildlife Value:

Host plant for 328 Lepidoptera larvae, including viceroy and mourning cloak butterflies, as well as locust underwing and great leopard moths and the specialist connected dagger moth.  Many types of specialized solitary bees visit in early spring, and beetle grubs, aphids, thrips, stinkbugs, gall gnats, and sawflies feed on willow. An important source of food for flycatchers, warblers, catbirds, chickadees, and goldfinches. Ruffed grouse, squirrels, turtles, muskrats, beaver, deer, and rabbits feed on parts of the plant. Warblers and vireos use willow as nesting sites.  

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Hippocrates prescribed chewing willow leaves to reduce the pain of women in childbirth. Native Americans used the bark, which contains salicin, for reducing pain, inflammation, and fever. It has also been used for skin issues, such as corns, calluses, and pimples.

 

Willow is edible, but the flavor is bitter.  Young shoots, buds, and leaves are high in vitamin C.  

 

Willow’s flexible branches are valued for making baskets and wicker furniture.  The catkin branches are harvested in late winter or early spring for decorative displays.

Willow, Pussy, Salix discolor

SKU: 502
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