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Spring pops with pussy willows

Pussy willows begin to pop as soon as the weather warms and the sap begins to flow. John Zvirovski / The Sun

Every year when spring comes along, I am met with wonderful memories of the past. One of those memories is when I was in college and getting that March phone call from a friend of mine who was in her late 70s at the time. She would call and ask when I could pick her up to go to Minnesota and harvest pussy willow branches along the ponds. Like clockwork, she knew when they would be in their prime. So, I would go pick her up the following Saturday, head to the lakes region and soon we would be faced with numerous pussy willow shrubs along the waterways. She would quickly point out the place to stop to harvest some branches. Before I could even get the trunk open and ready for the harvest, she would run through the deep snow in the ditch wearing her knee-high boots, with pruner in hand, and trudge toward the treasure. Her energy always amazed me and soon she would come back with her arms full of new and fresh branches to replace the old ones that adorned her home.

It was always a call that indicated to me that regardless of how much snow was on the ground, spring was finally here. The most common species that grows in our region is the American Pussy Willow. Known as a tree, it is actually a large shrub that can reach heights of 20 feet.  

Pussy willows enjoy wet areas, so if there is a spot in your yard that does not drain well, this might just be a specimen that you will want to add to the landscape. Not only will they grow well, you will also have a large shrub nearby to harvest fresh stems every spring! Just be careful where you locate them as they have invasive roots and can invade a septic field. They are also used for erosion control on hills and banks along waterways, so have many valuable properties.

The pussy willow buds we are all familiar with are actually the flower heads or catkins that the shrub produces in early spring. Usually once the snow begins to melt, the sap in the shrub starts to flow and the flower heads spring forth. They are the first things to appear in spring, long before the leaves ever appear.  

As the catkins enlarge, the brown caps fall off and a gray fuzzy puff expands to create the pussy that we are all familiar with up the length of the branch at each leaf node. For up to three weeks, these catkins will remain fuzzy and full before elongating into a yellow seed strand. Once elongated, they do not have much use in the home for dried arrangements, as they will not hold onto the stem for long at this stage.

Typically people harvest pussy willows when the gray buds first appear. Then they cut the stems to the lengths they like and bring them indoors. To keep the buds at the fuzzy stage for a long lasting arrangement do not put them into water, just place them into a dry vase. If not disturbed, these cuttings can last for years. If you have a shrub nearby, you can refresh the cuttings annually with no harm done to the plant.

When cutting your branches, cut them directly above a leaf node at an angle, as this is where the branch will begin to grow again when it leafs out. The seed heads only form on wood that is one year old, so pruning your shrub each spring will allow it to produce nice branches for the following year to harvest. Typically it is best to prune out one-third of the old wood of a shrub each year to always allow it to rejuvenate with new and vigorous wood. If the shrub is left year after year without being cut, the shrub will become quite tall and the new growth will become shorter with each passing year allowing few good stems to harvest.

If you are looking to grow a pussy willow in your yard, they are very easy to propagate. Simply take a cutting from one-year-old wood and place it into a vase of water or place it at least 3 inches into moist soil. Within weeks, these cuttings will root and you can grow a shrub of your own. I started one about seven years ago and with annual pruning I harvest quite a few branches to place inside the home each year. After pruning, the shrub grows to about 8 to 9 feet within the following season.  

For something with a little more character, seek out the black weeping pussy willow that is about 6 to 8 feet tall, but all the branches weep toward the ground. These will create a beautiful display in the garden during spring while adding great weeping character during the rest of the year.  

If you are looking for pussy willows to use in your indoor settings, take a venture this coming week and you will be sure to see many popping forth near the waterways. Stop for a moment and make a lasting memory with someone special in your life by making a seasonal harvest. It will give you something to talk about for years to come.

Spring is the time for rebirth and this is the first item to show life again once the season has arrived. Enjoy all there is the season has to offer, as before you know it, we will all be in the garden planting new items once again to enhance the permanent items in our landscapes. Have a very happy Easter!

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