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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.