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Volume XVII, Issue 8 - February 19 - February 25, 2009
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The Bay Gardener by Dr. Frank Gouin

Pussy Willow: Spring’s Harbinger

It tops groundhogs in proclaiming winter’s end

The fuzzy catkins bulging from the branches of pussy willows guarantee that spring is on its way. Yet some species of pussy willow begin exposing their catkins in early winter. In Southern Maryland, we are fortunate that we can grow the giant pussy willow, which produces catkins from one to one-and-a-half inches long. Depending on the year, I have seen this variety of pussy willow begin exposing its catkins as early as November.

If you’re seeking to plant this spring sentinel, you’ll have many different species to choose from. But what is marketed as a weeping pussy willow is not one. Weeping pussy willows are man-made by grafting; unless properly maintained, they will lose their weeping form within a few years.

Pussy willows will grow equally well in wet soils and in well-drained soils. In wet soils, they tend to grow longer single stems and fewer branched stems than on well-drained soils.

Pussy willows respond well to severe yearly pruning. Without it, they tend to produce short branches and small catkins. Severe pruning stimulates the plants to produce long single branches with minimal branching.

When pruning the plants in the spring, remove all branches that are smaller than a pencil in diameter. Twiggy branches tend to attract an insect called willow gall midge, which causes swelling at the base of the branches, thus reducing stem growth. It is best controlled by proper pruning. If it does invade, prune away the infested branches and burn them.

Pussy willow is harvested in late winter, when most of the catkins are fully expanded. To minimize the loss of catkins from the branches, cut and lay each branch on a flat surface until you have accumulated at least 10 branches. If you want the catkins to dry straight, tie the branches in bundles of 10 and hang them upside down in a dark cool space.

If you want the catkins to dry crooked and bent, place the stems upright in a container but do not add water. Placing the branches in water will only allow the catkins to flower, which will reduce their quality.

After the branches and catkins have dried two to three weeks, lightly spray them with a mixture of one part Elmer’s glue and nine parts water to help prevent the catkins from shattering.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at [email protected]. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly.
Please include your name and address.

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