Growing up, and until very recently, I thought a pussy willow was the little furry pre-bud on the branches of any bush related to the willow family. I realized most of the bushes were found in ditches so I associated them with willow-related trees or shrubs. So I was surprised by an article by Mary H. Meyer, University of Minnesota Extension horticulturist and professor, about the pussy willow. I am following her article closely as there may be others out there who are unaware of this pollinator-friendly powerhouse of a shrub.

Pussy willow (Salix discolor) is a large, 15- to 20-foot shrub, native to Minnesota and much of the northern United States. It is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. Pussy willows provide some of the earliest flowers and pollen for honeybees and many native bees. The foliage also supports native butterfly caterpillars. The fast-growing shrub prefers wet sites but will tolerate a wide variety of soils.

Willows are dioecious, which means there are only male flowers on one plant and only female flowers on another plant. The male flowers are showier and what we think of as "pussy willow flowers." The female flowers can disperse pollen and move with the wind, similar to cottonwood flowers, and may be a nuisance. Male flowering plants are usually what is sold in the garden centers. You do not need plants of both sexes to get flowers. Planting just one male plant will give you showy flowers. The "pussy" is called a catkin, appearing long before the leaves/flowers.

Pussy willow likes a soil pH of 6.8 to 7.2. They bloom from March to April with males exhibiting white flowers with yellow stamens and green-ish styles full of pollen later in the spring. This native species is present and hardy in all areas of the state except in the southwest portion.

Regardless of flower sex, this species is a vigorous grower. Plants can be cut back to the ground to produce new shoots with many flowers. Cuttings can be woven to make a wattle fence for a garden border, or if you are motivated to make something larger, visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for a look at Patrick Dougherty’s "Youbetcha" stick sculpture.

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The pussy willow has a "low nutrient and nitrogen" demand compared to other energy crops. Cornell University is working on willows as a bioenergy source. Wood chips made from willows can be dried and pelletized to produce heat and/or electricity and biofuels such as ethanol.

The shrub produces a dense cluster of stems on each plant, which can be placed to form living snow fences, privacy hedges, a riparian zone (buffer area between land and a river or stream) or used to restore stream banks. To date, no willows are on the invasive plant lists for any state in the United States.

The pussy willow is a popular shrub, so call ahead to your local greenhouses to assure there is a supply. Some Bemidji local greenhouses carry this shrub. Now that I know the worth of this shrub, I am getting one for my lakeside garden.

Find the article plus a picture of the cool sculpture mentioned at https://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2020/01/smart-gardening-in-2020-plant-pussy.html.

These local garden articles will reach you each week throughout the gardening season, but also click on "Yard and Garden” at the University of Minnesota Extension website -- www.extension.umn.edu -- for gardening information, or visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Beltramicountymastergardeners.

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