Preserving Winter Pussies
For many years, my family collected bouquets of catkins to celebrate my youngest son’s birthday in mid-January. Silky grey and soft as kittens, these fat, furry flowers came from an elderly western willow, Salix scouleriana, that liveds in our front yard. Nowadays, we have to wander further afield to glean our twigs, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of walking to locate a good-sized pussy willow blooming away by the roadside. Though this species is rarely grown in gardens, I think it is an ornamental creature, with felted, silver-backed leaves that make a handsome backdrop to a mixed border.
In the wild, scouler willows grow into graceful small trees (15-30′), but in small gardens, they are easily kept shrubby by regular thinning. If a young plant is cut back when planted, it will develop into a multiple-trunked shrub about the size of a mature lilac bush. The largest of the trunks can be removed every few years to maintain this compact size. Where room permits, several main trunks can be encouraged, resulting in a pleasantly shaped little tree clump.
Beware The Bouncing Branch
Like many willows, scouler willow trees are rather brittle of
branch, blithely shedding heavy older limbs with every wind storm. Scoulers pruned as shrubs don’t have this habit, which becomes a distinct liability when the trees are underplanted with perennials. Cutting scoulers back in youth may seem harsh, but it makes them better behaved–thus more lastingly welcome–in mixed borders.
Even mature trees can be cut back quite hard, as I long ago discovered. During several especially windy years, great chunks of my old scouler came down each year. They would invariably land on top of their most fragile neighbors, flattening many a promising peony and rose in full bud. The last such event was so infuriating that it reminded me of a sage old saying about the best sort of defense. Out came the hand saw and down came the last remaining major limbs. (I think that an elderly tree deserves to go down through hand-to-hand combat, rather than fall to the casual impersonality of a chain saw. After all, it took that tree years to grow so large. It’s only fitting that it should cost us some time and effort to cut it down.)
Know When It’s Time To Whack
Had that tree retained its lovely natural shape, such powerful
offensive action might not have seemed a good idea. However, frequent loss of limb had left our scouler willow less than lovely, so this radical pruning did no harm. In fact, a number of lusty side shoots were already heading heavenward. In an amazingly short time, the tree was rejuvenated, with healthy, shapely young branches replacing the rotting old ones.
Only a few nurseries carry scouler willows, but anybody who so desires can have as many as they like for the price of a drive in the country. Scouler willow is common along Northwestern roadsides (indeed, it grows all the way from Alaska to New Mexico). Keep your eyes out for the upright, shrubby plants which often decorate the verges of country roads. (Young scoulers cut back by road-clearing crews respond with lush growth that results in dense shrubs rather than airy trees.)
Watch The Roadside For Stray Pussies
For the next month or so, the scoulers will be very obvious, for nearly every twig is tipped with large and lustrous pussies. Indeed, I can’t understand why scouler willows aren’t common in gardens, since their pussies are larger and more beautiful than the horticultural pussy willows widely sold in nurseries and garden centers. What’s more, scouler pussies appear a good deal earlier than their foreign counterparts. Since most pussy willows are grown entirely for the beauty of their silky catkins, it seems curious to neglect this splendid native in favor of frumpier plants with fewer charms.
When you find a likely-looking candidate, whip out your pruning snips and thoughtfully relieve the tree of some of its excess twiggery. When cutting pussy willows for the house, we naturally want to take the most heavily decorated twigs. For propagation purposes, however, it’s good to include a few bits of green, rather than hard, wood as well.
Soft But Not Lishy
Small branches which are prime for rooting are described in horticultural terms as feeling firm rather than “lishy”. Such twigs are not rigid: they have a bit of give to them, yet aren’t so soft as to be swished about like ribbons. Actually, willows root with such alacrity that practically any piece will take. Old wood is usually difficult or impossible to root, yet some years back we stuck a dozen willow limbs as big as my arm straight into the ground and every one of them set roots and grew into trees.
When you get your bounty home, just stick your scouler twigs into a jar of water. Keep them on a sunny windowsill, and in a few weeks, you will discover many long, white roots. Plants rooted in water often need a bit of transition before placement in dirt, but not willows. Pot them up if you aren’t sure where you want them, otherwise you can place the young plants wherever you want them in the garden. Keep them moist for the first summer, but once they are established, scouler willows thrive in good soils even without supplemental water. Next year, you may admire the year’s first catkins without leaving home.