Abundant moisture provides the key to growing healthy, attractive pussy willows (Salix spp.). Basic care stays simple when you mimic their natural wetland homes. Native North American pussy willow (Salix discolor) and Japanese pussy willow (Salix caprea), both hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, delight gardeners of all ages with their silky catkins -- mainstays of spring's earliest bouquets. But keeping those touchable blooms within reach requires regular, rigorous pruning.

Pussy willow, close up, differential focus
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A close-up of a pussy willow branch.

Growing Preferences

In their native environments, pussy willows inhabit marshes, floodplains and waterway banks where soil stays consistently damp year-round. Full sun, sandy soil and wet feet suit them best. Pussy willows adapt to various soil pH levels but prefer a near-neutral range of 6.8 to 7.2. Before planting pussy willows, enrich your soil with generous amounts of leaf mold or organic compost worked down into their garden bed. This provides all the nutrients these fast-growing beauties need; no additional fertilizers are needed. Pussy willows tolerate partial shade in less-wet soil conditions, but they do not tolerate drought. Supplement rainfall, as needed, to keep soil moist at all times.

Garden Spacing

Sizing up pussy willow spacing depends on your gardening goals and your commitment to regular pruning. Limiting their size is simple, but native pussy willows regularly grow up to 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide in moist garden conditions. In the wild, the plants can grow double that height. Japanese pussy willows typically reach up to 25 feet tall and 15 wide. The results are beautiful, but those heights often put catkins out of range for touching, viewing and cutting stems. Mature, gray, eye-level wood also lacks the rich, reddish-brown sheen of younger, catkin-bearing stems.

Maintenance Pruning

Pussy willows respond to heavy pruning with shiny new growth and more catkins the following year. Some gardeners cut them to the ground every three to five years, but removing one-third of the shrub each spring encourages continuous rejuvenation. Wait until after the catkins open, so you can enjoy the blooms, or prune in late winter when the plant is dormant. Start by removing dead, damaged and crossing branches -- plus extras for fresh and dried bouquets. Then cut one-third of the oldest stems to the ground. Prune remaining stems to your preferred height and shape, and repeat the process every year. Use sharp bypass pruners for small stems and bypass loppers or curved pruning saws for larger ones. Sterilize the blades with household disinfectant before and after you prune.

Other Considerations

Pussy willow shrubs are either male or female. Native pussy willow's 1 1/2-inch-long, silver-gray, catkin blooms and Japanese pussy willow's 2-inch-long, pinkish-silver blooms only appear on male plants. Females bear greenish catkins. Some willow cultivars offer intriguing catkins along with smaller forms. Black pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla "Melanostachys," USDA zones 5 through 7) grows 6 to 10 feet tall and wide with black catkins on purplish stems. Even with its smaller size, heavy pruning encourages new growth, enhanced stem color and bigger blooms. Pussy willows can escape cultivation and are categorized as invasive in some regions. Regular pruning helps keep the shrubs in line.