Pussy Willow is a native shrub or small tree of wetlands and swamps. It can grow from 10 to 20 feet in height, usually with multiple trunks. The plant will grow as a small tree but is more frequently seen in the marshes as a multi-stemmed shrub.
The bark is smooth on younger growth and becomes split and furrowed on larger stems - gray-brown in color.
Twigs are slender and yellow-brown to reddish-brown and may have fine hair when young. Buds are covered with a single reddish-purple scale.
The leaves are alternate, simple, elliptical and blue-green above and pale green, almost white, on the underside, not hairy. Some leaves may be irregularly toothed. Leaf bases are convex, the tips are convex to very pointed. Secondary veins of the leaf are curved and irregularly spaced. At the base of the leaf, which has a short stalk, is a pair of green stipules, somewhat heart shaped.
Flowers: Plants are dioecious, that is each plant has only male or female flowers. The catkins, both male and female, appear on second year twigs in late winter before the leaves emerge. They are showy and in Minnesota at least, considered a harbinger of spring temperatures. Male catkins are shorter, first covered with dense silver hair and then elongating to about an inch and yellow in color from the mass of male flowers each of which has two stamens with yellow anthers. The female catkins have many small greenish carpels with yellow styles which have divided tips. The carpels have short silky hairs. Female catkins range from 1 to 4 inches long. Both sexes have a nectar gland at the base of the flower to attract bees.
Seeds: Pollinated female florets mature to a 1/3 inch long seed capsule which opens later in summer, releasing a number of tiny seeds. Thoreau wrote some interesting comments on the seeds - see bottom of page.
Habitat: Pussy Willow requires full sun and moist conditions. A branch cutting put into moist ground will root. The plant florists use and call 'Pussy Willow' is a different plant than this.
Names: The genus name for the willows, Salix, is the Latin name for a willow and means 'to leap' referring to the fast growth in the spring. The species name discolor, refers to the contrast in color of the top and bottom of leaves. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Muhl’- is for for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815) American Botanist who produced several catalogs of plants after retiring as a Lutheran pastor.
Above: Emerging catkins in March. Catkins appear on 2nd year twigs and a covered with a single scale.
Below: 1st photo - Developing male flowers. 2nd photo - Developing female flowers. 3rd photo - Bark of a medium size stem.
Below: 1st photo - The bright yellow anthers of the male flowers. 2nd photo - The catkin of female flowers showing the pale yellow styles.
Below: 1st photo - Female catkin post pollination. 2nd photo - Leaves are alternate, stalked, with convex bases.
Below: 1st photo - At the base of the leaf stalk is a pair of green stipules, somewhat heart shaped. 2nd photo - The underside of a leaf is pale green - almost white - and without hair. Irregular spacing of the secondary veins is quite noticeable.
Below: 1st photo - Maturing seed capsules with (2nd photo) seeds, with their fine white hair, being dispersed by the wind.
Below: While the plant grows natively in marshy areas, it can also make a nice landscape shrub if the soil is generally wet mesic.
Notes: Eloise Butler did not list Pussy Willow specifically as indigenous to the Garden area; she simply listed "willows" in her catalogue on 29 April 1907. But in her 1926 writing Shrubs in the Wild Garden she listed it as one of the ten most common shrubs in the Garden. It was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. It is found in North America all across Canada excepting Northwest territories and Nunavut. In the U.S. its range is the northern 2/3rds of the states from Montana and Wyoming eastward and south as far as North Carolina. Within Minnesota it is native to many counties in Minnesota except those in the SW Quadrant and a few scattered elsewhere in the central part of the state. 22 members of the Salix genus are native to Minnesota along with 2 introductions. Hennepin County is known to have 13 of those.
Former Garden Curator Martha Crone wrote in 1968: "The pussy willows appear in earliest spring, not only to show off their warm fur coats, but because it is a hardy shrub and can well endure the cold weather yet to come. However, the true blossoms come a few weeks later, changing the silvery catkins to a more ragged tuft of yellowish miniature flowers. They get a hearty welcome because they appear before any other plants except in the boggy areas, the Skunk Cabbage, which is found by few."
Eloise Butler wrote: "We know from afar when the willow catkins merge from furry pussies into yellow flower clusters, as well as the bees which are attracted by the honey-like smell that comes from the little nectar scale situated at the base of each staminate or pistillate flower above each downy bract." From The Fragrance of the Wild Garden - Feb. 1915, unpublished.
Thoreau wrote in his journals: "The fertile catkins of the willow are those green caterpillar-like ones, commonly an inch or more in length, which develop themselves rapidly after the sterile yellow ones are fallen or effete. A single catkin consists of from twenty-five to one hundred little pods, more or less ovate and beaked, each of which is closely packed with cotton, in which are numerous seeds so small that they can scarcely be discerned by ordinary eyes. At maturity the pod opens its beaks, each half curving backwards, and releases its downy contents like the milkweed. Except for size, it is much as if you had a hundred milkweed pods arranged cylindrically around a pole."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"