ISSUE 14  |  Less Is More

Trend Alert: Black Pussy Willow

April 11, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Justine Hand

A few weeks ago my aunt emailed a grainy photo along with the following caption, “Black pussy willows! Have you ever seen these?” I had not. Intrigued, I went in search of this unlikely harbinger of spring.

Much like the standard (and lovable) gray variety, Salix gracilistylus “˜Melanostachys or black pussy willows, burst forth in the early spring with bunny-like blooms or catkins, in this case in a velvety, jet black. To find one of my own, I called upon my local tree experts at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, which of course had two of these striking willows at the height of their spring splendor. After seeing Salix gracilistylus ‘Melanostachys  in person, I found this dark specimen so bewitching I decided to plant my own. 

Photographs by Justine Hand for Gardenista.

Above: Among the many pussy willow specimens at the Arnold Arboretum, two black Salix gracilistylus “˜Melanostachys’can be found along the marsh opposite the Hunnewell Building.

Above: Pussy willows catkins are actually flowers. 

Above: Pussy willow trees can reach 10 or more feet high with a 15-foot spread. Here at the Arnold Arboretum, they are planted in their happiest habitat of moist marshes and wetlands.

Above: My son, Oliver, admires the fuzzy black catkins of Salix gracilistylus “˜Melanostachys’and decides we need one of our own.

Before you buy:

As with any plant, it is important to do some research before you buy to determine if your yard has optimal growing conditions. All pussy willows prefer full sun (because they are prone to rust) and moist, but not boggy, soil. I never thought I’d be glad that someone engineered our driveway so that it funnels all rainwater into our yard, but it does make for perfect pussy willow conditions. (And I have the only yard in the neighborhood that requires no additional watering to stay green.) If your yard is dry, you can still plant pussy willows, but you will need to water more often. 

Also, pussy willows are dioecious; each shrub is either male or female. The male catkins are more impressive, so ask your nursery which you are getting. Finally, pussy willows have invasive roots with a large spread, so don’t plant them too near your water lines or septic tanks. 

Above: Awaiting its new home, my new Salix gracilistylus “˜Melanostachys’ was purchased from Holly Hill Farm; $12.

Planting Instructions:

A hardy plant, pussy willows can be planted right after the ground thaws. Pick a sun-to-partial-shade spot, with plenty of room around it (at least 10 feet). Then dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root spread (about a couple of inches on either side of your plant).

Above: To encourage healthy roots, mix your soil with organic matter such as manure, peat, or compost. Wait a full year before fertilizing your pussy willow.

Above: Loosen the roots before planting and spread them across a little mound built up in the center of your hole.

Above: Add a mixture of soil and manure loosely around the plant.

Above: Fill in the hole so the surrounding soil is level to where the plant sat in its original pot. Press gently all around and water thoroughly. 

Above: A final 2-to-4-inch layer of mulch will help direct the water that willows love to the roots.

Above: You may notice that the catkins on my pussy willow don’t look black. That’s because the flowers are in full bloom. Next year as they begin to appear, I’ll have the same black catkins as pictured above.

Above: Already sprouting leaves, my newly planted black pussy willow provides a welcome bit of spring in my yard. He’s pretty small now, but with proper care, he’ll grow fast.

Continued Care: 

  • The Latin “Salix” comes from the Celtic word “sallis” – “sa” meaning “near,” and “lis” meaning “water.” If yours is not near water, you’ll need to water your newly planted willow at least twice a week for a few weeks, and after that once a week. Mature willows need 1 inch of rainfall per week or equivalent.
  • Willows do not need much fertilizer. But if your soil is poor, add more organic matter or fertilizer in the fall. Be sure to wait a full year before applying fertilizer, and then apply it around the outer edges of the tree’s canopy, making sure that the fertilizer does not touch the plant itself. 
  • Also if you have bunnies in your yard, you may want to protect your new bush by placing wire or mesh around its base.
  • To maintain you willow’s health and shape, prune it in early winter (when it is dormant, but before the catkins start to form). Remove any dead branches and cut one-third of the oldest branches back to the ground. Snip any suckers on the main trunk or coming up from the ground.
  • Most important: share! After your pussy willow is established, you can easily make cuttings for friends. Learn how to propagate pussy willows from cuttings at Martha Stewart.

Looking for more trees that flower now? Try planting A Fruit Tree That Blooms in Spring. And don’t overlook The Magical Powers of White Cherry Blossoms.