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Vermont Garden Journal: Catkins Are A Sure Sign Of Spring

Pussy willows are bushes native to the area that grow fuzzy gray buds, known as 'catkins.' The plants thrive in our cold early-year climate and are a welcome sign of spring.
iStock Photo/Denis1978
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Pussy willows are bushes native to the area that grow fuzzy gray buds, known as 'catkins.' The plants thrive in our cold early-year climate and are a welcome sign of spring.

There's nothing more hopeful and exciting this time of year than running across a wild patch of pussy willows. It's a sure sign spring is coming! Pussy willows are native bushes that thrive in our cold climate. Like all willows they like a moist area to grow and perform best in full sun. While we're familiar with the native pussy willow or Salix discolor, there is also a European pussy willow Salix caprea that has slightly larger catkins, those furry buds. Both types are hardy to zone 4.

Pussy willow bushes can reach 20 feet tall. There is also male and female bushes. The pussy willows we see in March are from the male bushes, so those usually are the ones you want for the earliest furry, gray buds.

Pussy willow shrubs aren't the most attractive after the catkins go by, but are an important wildlife plant. Plant them in out of the way wet areas of your property or use them as hedging plants. You'll only need one shrub because they're so easy to propagate by taking stem cuttings in spring and rooting them in moisten potting soil.

To keep the catkins coming each winter and within reach, prune your pussy willows in late winter. The catkins form on last year's growth, so after your harvest this year's crop, prune back the stems. Remove some of the old gray stems to the ground, favoring younger stems. Top these young stems to a reasonable height. If overgrown, you can even prune the whole shrub to the ground and pussy willows will regrow from the roots. It's very forgiving of pruning.

Check out unusual varieties of pussy willows that are less hardy and aggressive than the natives, but offer more colorful catkins.

This week's tip: With alternating warm and cold weather, watch for frost heaving on your perennial flowers. Replace blown away mulch and reset heaved plants so the roots don't dry out.