These Shrubs are the Cat’s Meow

The catkins of the shrub Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) flower in early April along the edges of wetlands and wet meadows in southern Connecticut. On a damp, early spring day these flowers on bare stems light up the landscape like a collection of bright stars in a dark sky.

The fuzzy, silvery catkins look like the tip of a cat’s tail. The name is from the Dutch word katteken (“kitten”). A folktale tells the story of how the Pussy Willow got its catkins. One day, down by a river, when her kittens fell in, the mother cat’s cries were answered by a willow tree that bent down and rescued the kittens with its branches.

What we think of pussy willow catkins are the male flowers. Notice the yellow anthers on these male catkins. The flowers have lots of pollen for early bees and butterflies. Photo by the author.

The flower’s hairs keep it warm during cold snaps in late winter and early spring. Catkins have no petals, nor are they fragrant. A catkin is actually an inflorescence, a cluster of individual flowers. Pussy Willow shrubs are dioecious (“separate houses”), with male and female flowers on separate plants.

Here is a close-up of a shrub with female flowers that provide nectar for insects. Notice the greenish styles and white stigmas. Photo by the author.

Native plants in our gardens can be an ecosystem for the wildlife that evolved with them. While you are examining the Pussy Willow’s unique flowers, you will probably see some movement nearby. These shrubs are a five-star restaurant for early insects. Many native bees, including mining bees (Andrena spp.), mason bees (Osmia spp.), emerging queen bumblebees (Bombus spp.), the Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inaequalis), the non-native European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), and early butterflies such as the Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) or Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) all seek the flowers’ copious pollen and nectar. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation calls the plant “a vital food source for hungry pollinators” and a “must-have for the pollinator garden.”

Even from a distance, you can tell the sex of these Pussy Willows. Notice the male shrub with large white catkins in the middle of this photo. It’s surrounded by female shrubs with greenish catkins. Photo by the author.

Entomologist Heather Holm, author of Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide, stresses the importance of planting native shrubs and trees in our yards. She calls these gardens “the meadows of the sky,” because they provide much more food for pollinators than the herbaceous plants in a meadow. Pussy Willows, with multiple stems that can reach up to 20 feet (6 meters), are loaded with flowers—a true pollinator powerhouse.

Pussy Willows provide nectar for early emerging, adult Mourning Cloak butterflies. Mourning Cloaks also lay their eggs on Pussy Willow leaves, providing food for the butterfly larvae. Photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Not only is the Pussy Willow a source of nectar and pollen, but its leaves are larval food for up to 18 species of butterflies and moths in our region, including the Mourning Cloak, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), Viceroy (Limenitis archippus, a Monarch mimic), and beautiful giant silk moths such as the Promethea (Callosamia promethea), Polyphemus (Antheraea polyphemus), and Io Moth (Automeris io).

Pussy Willows also provide thick cover for nesting birds, such as the Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum),Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailii), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), and American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis).

The thick branches of Pussy WIllows provide good nesting cover for Yellow Warblers. Photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

When you look for Pussy Willows in a local nursery, confirm that it has the true species, Salix discolor. The European and Asian species often for sale will not provide larval food for native butterflies and moths.

Pussy Willows thrive in moist areas with part to full sun, but are also tolerant of regular soils once established. They are easy to propagate. One way is to root a 6- to 12-inch (15- to 30-centimeter) twig in water. Root it in April and, once roots form after a few weeks, plant it in May. Keep the plant well-watered until established and water at least once a week for the first year.

Pussy Willow twigs have a high concentration of the natural plant hormone indolebutyric acid (IBA). This hormone stimulates root growth. To make a homemade solution that will help cuttings to root faster, soak the cut tips of willow branches in water and then use this water to root other plant cuttings.

Easy to grow and propagate, and a key pollinator and larval food plant, Pussy Willows truly are the cat’s meow.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

8 thoughts on “These Shrubs are the Cat’s Meow

  1. This great, Jim! Thank you.

    On Mon, Apr 18, 2022 at 12:58 PM Beyond Your Back Door wrote:

    > Jim Sirch posted: ” The catkins of the shrub Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) > flower in early April along the edges of wetlands and wet meadows in > southern Connecticut. On a damp, early spring day these flowers on bare > stems light up the landscape like a collection of bright s” >


  2. I love this article with the beautiful and clear pictures. Thank you. I have a pussy willow but the previous owner and my current landscaper have been pruning it into a tree. I also don’t know if it’s native. I bought a little one from the local Connecticut Conservation District plant sale last year. No flowers or catkins this year.


  3. HI Susanne, Thanks for your feedback! I could take a few years for the shrub (small tree) to put on enough growth to begin to flower. Willows can be confusing to ID sometimes. This is a link from Go Botany which has characteristics:,more%20numerous%20and%20relatively%20sharper.

    The best way to identify them is to find some in bloom in the wild. Take care, JIm


  4. Thanks, Jim, for the enlightening post. I realize now that I have a non-native Salix chaenomeloides, which definitely attracted pollinators when in bloom, but I did not realize that native pussy willow is a larval food for moths and butterflies. I guess I’ll have to go out and get a Salix discolor to plant now! Would it be a problem to plant it near my non-native one?


  5. Jim-
    Great article! Please advise how to distinguish between native and non-pussy willow and provide some specifics on proper soil medium. You already discuss a bit on medium but I’m unsure on moisture. For instance, can they be water logged like cattails and are cattails native also. I have a wetland behind my property that’s conservation easement so I want to add to feed insects and birds. Lastly, please advise on some resources for native flower selections and care.


    1. HI Roy, Thx! Distinguishing between native and non-native species (and even between native species) can sometimes be a bit tricky as they can sometimes hybridize. I would look to Native Plant Trust’s Go Botany Simple Key:
      I would look at Salix discolor and check out the characteristics. If you want to send me an email, I’ll send you a document I put together with some native plant/pollinator resources. Cheers, Jim


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