Salix chaenomeloides (Japanese pussy willow)
THAT I’D BE TOUTING THE virtues of a pussy willow as plant of the week never crossed my mind – but our roadside plantings of Salix chaenomeloides are outstanding this year at Loomis Creek. Lustrous reddish brown winter bud scales have popped in recent weeks to expose puffs of velvety gray pussies swarming along the upright stems of our plants – a true sign of spring’s arrival.
What are “pussies” in the plant kingdom anyway? Botanically they are densely packed clusters (catkins) of male flowers; in the case of Salix chaenomeloides, catkins reveal themselves at about ½ inch and elongate to 2 inches gradually exposing reddish stamens with yellow-orange anthers that shed pollen (a great color play). Other willows develop pussies, too, but in my estimation none really compete with the presence and power of this Japanese species.
Salix chaenomeloides generally grows upright stems, 15 to 20 feet tall. You can restrict height easily by pruning in spring after bloom. Older stems are dull gray, but young twiggy growth is a colorful reddish purple in Hudson Valley winters. After flowering, this willow sports gray to blue-green leaves that provide nice border background. Japanese pussy willow is a quick grower, particularly in moist, damp soils. One of my past spring rituals was the March purchase of big bunches of cut pussy willow branches at the Philadelphia International Flower Show (I won’t reveal how long ago that was!). Now it’s just a few paces out the front door and down our road to harvest our own stems for indoor decoration and rooting in damp soil for nursery sales. Times have changed!
Culture: Full sun to part shade. USDA Zones 4-8