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Pussy Willow: Everything You Need To Know

Pussy Willow: Everything You Need To Know

For all its frosty walks, cosy fireplaces and hearty comfort food, I think every one of us reaches a point when we’ve just about had enough of Winter. My own seasonal epiphany came to me this morning as I tried to smash the ice on the pond for the fifth consecutive day in a row. The broom handle barely chipped the surface - a hefty Birch log fared little better. Finally, I had no option but to dig the sledgehammer out of the shed. As the ice shattered into thick chunks and slapped about on the surface, my hands burned with cold and I thought to myself, “I am so ready for Spring”.

There is hope - signs that warmer times are on the way. I have an early Spring checklist; tick off all three and you know that you’re pretty much on the home straight. First up is Mr Toad. The Common Toad (Bufo bufo) has been known to stir from hibernation as early as Valentine’s Day, upon which it rather appropriately makes its way to the nearest pond to find a mate. The mating call of Common Toads in the night air is a true harbinger of Spring.

Around this time you are also likely to find Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) in bloom - a delicate, shade-loving perennial that flowers weeks before many other wild plants have even poked their heads above ground. The flowers are deeply fragrant, edible and can be used in the kitchen.

Finally, from around late February onwards (sometimes earlier, depending on the weather), I catch sight of furry grey catkins in the woods and field margins - a surefire indicator that Male Pussy Willows are in bud. 

What is pussy willow?

Pussy Willow, or Salix caprea, is native to the UK and is a member of Salicareae - the Willow family. It is one of a curious group of species that have both Male and Female plants - both are needed in order for them to reproduce. Other Dioecious plants include Hops, Juniper and Sea Buckthorn. Female Pussy Willow flowers are far more understated than Males, with narrow, flask-shaped pistils.

While many of us know them as Pussy Willow, the plant’s actual name is Goat Willow - historically, it was used as a fodder crop for goats. Other familiar members in the genus include Weeping Willow (Salix babylonia) which hails from northern China, and Twisted willow (Salix matsudana), the meandering branches of which can often be found in Freddie’s Flowers subscribers' arrangements at the beginning of the year.

Willow has a long history of medicinal use. For thousands of years the bark has been used for pain relief and as an antipyretic. It contains Salicin, which is a natural form of aspirin.

Illustration of pussy willow

How to grow pussy willow

Pussy Willow is very easy to grow from cuttings. Trim the stems to 30cm lengths, then pop them in a vase filled with 10-15cm of water. Sit the vase on a bright windowsill out of direct sunlight; give the stems a few weeks and roots will have sprouted below the water line, after which they can be grown-on in pots and eventually transferred to the garden, should you wish.

Salix caprea is great as a hedging plant and as a native species, it attracts plenty of wildlife. If you’re lucky (and I do mean lucky), you might even find a bright green caterpillar with tiny yellow spots munching away at the leaves in late Summer. The Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) is an elusive and enigmatic butterfly that lays a single egg on a tree, then flies to another to repeat the process - a clever trick of evolution that reduces the chances of predation for the newly-hatched larvae.

It’s fair to say that there is a lot more to Pussy Willow than meets the eye, but on an unashamedly aesthetic level, its slender, feline-mittened stems will brighten any Spring or Easter arrangement. Many of our native species (both flora and fauna) are sadly in decline due to habitat loss, so if you do have space to grow a Pussy Willow somewhere in the garden, nature will be glad of the helping hand - as will your floral displays, of course!

Send flowers to brighten the days of those who brighten yours with the new Freddie's Flowers gift service.

Posted on 27th May 2024
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