Pussy WillowJapanese Giant Pussy Willow

"It's fun to see a fairy flutter
Off a catkin boat,
And wrap her fairy baby in
A pussywillow coat."

-"Finding Fairies"
by Marjorie Barrows
fl. 1930s thru 1950s


Generally speaking when I purchase a new shrub, I go for the largest specimen I can reasonably afford. Many people to save money will plant some slow-growing shrub expecting it to leap up to a six or ten feet height in no time, & are totally discouraged when year after year it's still a tiny thing. One of the most pathetic sights is when someone has just spaced several one-foot-tall rhododendrons at ten foot intervals along the rim of an otherwise unplanted yard, thus spaced because the homeowner was somehow misled into believing each plant would grow to be five or six feet high & wide in no time.

Or someone wanted a privacy hedge that would need to be ten to twelve feet tall minimum to serve the purpose, & therefore planted a scrawny row of foot-tall saplings of some species that with luck will grow ten inches a year. How much better to envision the size of bush you expect to see in a location, & get one that most nearly fits that expectation.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for patience. And watching a seed or a twig grow into something splendid can be a most rewarding experience.

When Granny Artemis bought our Japanese Giant Pussy Willow (Salix chaenomeloides), it was with full awareness that for a while it is only going to be what you see in this February photo, a two foot tall twig with two branches at the top. But oh how lovely those two branches, leafless in winter but with miraculous furballs lined up like roosting owls.

We have given it a moderately sunny & moist location. This willow is called "Giant" not because it will ever be a big tree, but because of the size of the pussies, which are very ample. Through the white fur you can see a purplish heart. When the light catches them just right, they have a violet luminiscence from within, amazingly lovely.

It will someday be quite a large bush. Salix chaenomeloides grows into a multiple-branched twiggy shrub that can reach 20 feet tall. It reaches its first ten feet very rapidly, then slows down, so it doesn't take a lot of patience to begin with such a pretty start.

Tragic Addendum:
Death of a Pussy Willow

My dream of a twig someday being a fifteen or twenty foot fountaining shrub was dashed when this tiny start failed to thrive. Though it produced lovely winter pussies, doing so seems to have exhausted it before it set sufficient roots. Come spring it just never put out any leaves. I waited & waited & was absurdly patient, but by the middle of summer I had to admit it was never going to come to life.

I eventually planted a Summersweet where the pussy willow had been. But to reveal the extremity of my absurd hopefulness, instead of composting the dead pussy willow, I replanted it in an out of the way spot on the off-chance that it will sprout from the root after all.

Heronswood Nursery provides many fascinating rarities of things no one else offers. A wonderful nursery. But they often rush things to market prematurely. They're mostly mail-order for very tiny starts of things. So from their point of view, when they grow something to gallon-pot size for the local market, that's a long, long time. You could buy a tiny two-inch start of something & it is up to the buyer to continue with it some while under protective cover or coldframe before they are ready for gardens. But a visitor to the nursery who gets it in a gallon pot might be forgiven the naivety of thinking if it's two feet tall, it's garden-ready.

Also when things are started in greenhouses then sold before hardening them up for the outdoors. I so rarely loose plants, but in the past year I did experience four losses, three of which were obtained from Heronswood. Their plants are healthy enough, but sold so young or so unready to be outdoors, if a gardener isn't warned to treat them as seedlings or as still very greenhouse-tender, losses are inevitable. Heronswood does readily replace such losses without blaming the gardeners, but it was not possible to try again with the purple pussywillow because it was something only transiently in their stocks.

I liked this variety of purple pussy willow a great deal, & may well try it again someday if I ever spot it for sale locally, but next time I will require a slightly older specimen far more apt to be fully hardened off. Maybe someday I'll have a little greenhouse with which I can expect better luck with extremely tender starts of things. In the meantime Granny Artemis & I will have to be much more on-guard about what our greedy fingers snatch up from Heronswood's extensive seedling stocks.


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