Opinion: The common pussy willow, a member of the salix, or willow, family, is native to many B.C. locations.Opinion: The common pussy willow, a member of the salix, or willow, family, is native to many B.C. locations.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

Opinion: The common pussy willow, a member of the salix, or willow, family, is native to many B.C. locations.

‘Mt. Aso’ pinky pussy willow. E. Minter

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The common pussy willow, a member of the salix, or willow, family, is native to many B.C. locations, and it has become a plant of significant interest for both home-gardeners and in the floral industry.

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The growing trend of creating cut flower gardens has many folks looking for unique plants: something a little beyond the traditional that can be harvested outside the normal growing season. Pussy willows fit this category nicely as they can be used either fresh or dried to last well over a year as home décor.

Today there are a number of local growers raising them commercially, and, like so many other colourful stems, like the shrub dogwoods, pussy willows are becoming a much-in-demand floral staple.

There are also new and improved varieties being introduced, which are certainly widening their appeal. The traditional silver catkin varieties have been bred to flower earlier. Some, depending upon the winter weather and their location, will now produce catkins as early as mid-December, for the Christmas market.

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The quality of the catkins themselves has changed to produce larger flowers growing closer together on the stem for a much-improved look. Careful breeding has also intensified the colour of the stems producing much darker wood for a more distinct contrast with the silver catkins.

I remember a few years ago at the Pacific Northwest Flower Show in Seattle there were all kinds of people walking around with big bundles of pussy willow stems sporting black catkins. The vendor at the show was delighted with the response their novelty had drawn. Imagine how striking they would look mixed in with a spring bouquet of tulips, daffodils and fragrant hyacinths.

In the garden, it’s nice to surround this black variety with silver or variegated yellow foliaged plants for a contrasting look. Variegated euonymous, like Silver Queen, the new evergreen golden lonicera, Thundercloud, and even Dusty Miller can elevate the appearance of your plantings.

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A Japanese variety called Sekka, with its recurve, fasciate stems, has also become very popular. It produces small catkins on its many branches, but the true beauty of this plant is the way its stems flatten to about four centimetres wide. These twisted, curled stems look spectacular in bouquets, floral arrangements or by themselves in a vase. In the winter garden, it creates an interesting focal point, and a good pruning will encourage the development of more of these unique stems.

A few years ago, at the world’s largest horticultural show in Essen, Germany, I was quite taken with a new variety with brilliant pink catkins. Since then, I have been on a quest to find these plants in North America. I discovered it was another Japanese variety called Mt. Aso. Several collectors were growing this plant and now some are in circulation.

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Talk about a “wow!” winter plant. The catkins start out silver, but as they grow, a distinct blush pink begins to show and when mature, they are a brilliant deep pink. What a showpiece in the winter garden, as a cut stem, or as a stunning accent with cut flowers. As a companion planting, I would consider pieris japonica, especially some of the variegated forms, or Valley Rose, with its early pink flowers and vibrant new growth.

The one challenge with so many salix is their quite vigorous root systems that can become somewhat invasive. This can be controlled by root-pruning every few years. This simply means digging a trench about 45 to 60 cm deep around the base of the plant, no more than 60 to 90 cm from the main stem, thereby cutting the roots back so they can maintain a more fibrous, less aggressive root system closer to the plant. When you backfill the trench, add a little 10-15-19 Flower and Vegetable fertilizer around the drip line to encourage more compact growth, and the entire plant will be much better-behaved.

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As interest in these plants continues to increase, many growers are now grafting them onto a less energetic root stock to make them more garden-friendly. They’re also grafting them on to a single taller stalk to create an attractive tree form.

The other issue that is important is a hard-pruning, annually, to maintain the plant in a more compact form. When the catkins have matured and the stems leaf out, they should be pruned back hard, down to three or four nodes. This will encourage lots of new growth for next year’s catkin production.

There are many forms of garden pussy willows, the most famous of which is the weeping form, salix caprea “Kilmarnock”. Grafted at various heights, they make a nice specimen tree to be enjoyed year-round, but especially in late winter when each graceful branch is loaded with a series of wonderful weeping catkins. An old European practice is to shine a light upward, underneath the tree so all you see in the darkness is a shower of silver.

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There is also a miniature version of “Kilmarnock”. Reaching about 45 cm tall, it’s becoming quite popular as a patio container tree. The trick is to prune them back hard as well, to encourage lots of new branches each year.

Pussy willows are quite hardy, and depending upon the variety, they can tolerate Zone 4 or lower. Their value as a native species can’t be overstated. When the catkins finally open fully they’re an amazing pollinator plant. They’re bird-friendly, but if you’re planting next to certain streams or ponds, beware: you’ll find they’re a favourite of beavers. They also provide excellent steep bank soil retention and are one of the few plants that thrive in quite wet areas.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider the merits of pussy willows in our gardens. They’re more valuable than we might think.

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