|I’m sure my grandmother told me their name, but pussywillows tickled me before that. Literally, they are soft and fluffy and to brush them makes me giggle even today. Their puffy, cottony catkins pop from stems that are dark and sometimes shiny. The ones I remember were gray, a shade lighter than the storm-filled sky behind them and simply glowing against the clear blue of an early spring day. But I began my own deep love affair with pussywillows (Salix spp.) as a young woman in San Francisco where flower stalls decorate each corner to tempt passersby like me. Each payday I treated myself to one bunch or another and so discovered the long-lasting cut ‘flower’, pussywillow. When the buds are just swollen, the stems are cut for sale. Once safely in my apartment, I did as the flower seller told me: make a fresh cut at the base of the stems and put them in a vase of tepid water. Change the water daily and watch the show. I did, and when the next payday came, the pussywillows were still showing off. Ever since, I’ve been hooked, but didn’t know how they got their common name.
The Polish legend that is said to have given rise to the name, pussywillow, is a bit murky in horticultural terms. Here’s how it goes: a kitten was chasing butterflies and fell into a river. A willow tree came to the rescue by laying its bare branches into the river so the kitten could grab on and get back to the bank. After that, the willow began to produce ‘pussies’ each year to mark the event.
Ok, so let’s not dissect the sweet story. Instead, consider planting these:
• Giant Pussywillow (Salix chaenomeloides) is a big shrub, but like other Salix, can be pruned into a nice form to control its growth. Left alone, this one can reach 10’ in 2 years with steel gray catkins big as a kitten’s foot on reddish stems. Gorgeous!
• French or Pink Pussywillow (S. caprea) makes a great treeform shrub in only a few years in well drained soil with plenty of water. The pink catkins are a hoot!
• Black (S. gracilistyla) is also big and bold. Its dark catkins resemble caterpillars to some but they are simply beautiful to me with red stamens on male plants that look like odd little hats. This one spreads underground rapidly, so let it form a stylish thicket that will provide wildlife with a place to rest and next.
Flowering Quince hasn’t blown anyone’s skirt up since the salmon flowered shrub arrived early in the last century. But ‘Double Take’ is a good name for these new releases since you will not only love their colorful flowers, but also their shiny leaves and dwarf form. Two spectacular members of this group, Scarlet and Orange Storm, have been in my garden as trial plants and I can tell you they are all they are cracked up to be – fancy, camellia-like flowers in abundance and sweet foliage afterwards. No more dull, matte green quinces! I haven’t tried the Pink Storm yet, but this is a good week to add it to the collection. I have honestly neglected these shrubs in my efforts to be sure they are keepers – too long in small pots, little or no water and less fertilizer. They took it and now grace the front garden with tremendous aplomb.
Don’t miss these:
Dwarf butterfly bushes are easier to grow than the standard Buddleias.
The Flutterbye Series includes one I am crazy about: Petite Blue Heaven stands upright at 3-4 feet tall with tons of flowers in plenty of sun with water often enough that it does not wilt. Grow this Heaven in a well-drained, fertile organic soil prepared for beds or containers. Happily hardy, this angel is practically bulletproof.
Hydrangea macrophylla – the name refers to the traditional big leaves and mophead flower clusters that we know as classic garden plants. I’m always on the lookout for another good one, especially small-size ones. ‘Wedding Ring’ is a French hydrangea that reaches 3-4 feet and a bit wider, plus it has a reputation for being easier to maintain in your choice of pink or blue flowers and it is a hardy rebloomer. I’ve got room for 2 – what about you??