Plants & Gardens Blog

What Are Pussy Willows, Anyway?

At the tail end of winter, fuzzy nubs start to appear along the branches of pussy willows. These soft silver tufts—as well as the plant itself—are named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws, and they feel so much like fur that young children often wonder if they are animals instead of plants. What are those little nubs? Are they seeds? Fruits? And why are they fuzzy?

They're actually flowers just before they fully bloom. The soft coating of hairs acts as insulation to protect these early bloomers from cold temperatures. The species most commonly called pussy willow in the Northeast, Salix discolor, is a small, shrubby species of willow that can be found dotting wetlands and moist woods throughout much of North America. Most other willows make similar flowers, and since they’re among the very first to bloom, they’re especially delightful—they signal the last throes of winter and the brink of spring.

Even in full bloom, willow flowers hardly look like flowers at all. They have no petals or showy colors. Nor do they have any fragrance. Such flowers are called catkins, also named for cats, in this case for their tails (from the old Dutch word for kitten katteken). Many other trees and shrubs, such as birch and beech, also produce catkins.

Catkins usually don’t rely on pollinators to spread their pollen. Instead they simply release it into the wind, where it may or may not land on the female flower parts. In order to hit their targets, the catkins must produce a tremendous amount of pollen. (Wind-pollinated trees like these are the culprits of many a spring sneeze.)

More: No need to wait for spring. Enjoy these beautiful buds right now.

Pussy willows have been cultivated to produce a range of different catkin colors. Over the next few weeks, a parade of these blossoms will be on display at the southern end of BBG—in the Discovery Garden, the newly opened Water Garden, and along the nearby brook. Look for the fantastical pink pompoms of the Japanese pink pussy willow, the creepy, gothic-looking black pussy willow, and the rose-gold pussy willow, whose blossoms seem to glow.

Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male plants and female plants. Only male plants produce the fuzzy flowers. Home gardeners may be disappointed if they wind up with a female tree, but the flowers on female plants are equally funky—they just look more like greenish hairy caterpillars. Look for both blooming over the coming season.

Try This at Home

Most cut pussy willow stems are in a sort of time warp—dried at their peak fuzziness, and never allowed to fully flower. But if you keep fresh-cut pussy willows hydrated, you can see the whole flowering cycle and even the leafing-out process. Buy a healthy-looking bunch (look for flexible, greenish stems that don’t feel brittle or look shriveled), and place in a vase near a window, changing the water daily. You can add a little flower food if you have some.

Watch for new flower buds to cast off the shiny brown bud scales that surround the flower. When the flowers mature, you will see scores of yellow stamens emerge to cover each catkin. A tiny clump of pollen stands at each end. Wait even longer, and you may also see pale green, strappy leaves unfurl from the leaf buds. At this point, your willow stems will be in full spring growth and will need to be planted in soil outdoors to root for an extended experiment. The flexible stems can also be woven into a wreath or recycled in the compost pile.

Ashley Gamell is a freelance writer and consultant. After a decade on staff at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she now pens her posts from the Hudson Valley.


  • Laurie davies August 10, 2022

    I have a row of pussy willow that have appeared at the bottom of my garden against the wall…no idea how they got there they just appeared about 2 months ago and are now about 2 ft tall…about 5 in a row.

  • Zella Harmon April 29, 2022

    An old friend told me he used to make baskets with them, to sell to the tourists in Maine. He said if the buds fell off, if you soaked them, they’d come back to life, producing new fuzzy buds even years later!

  • Lynda Martins April 20, 2022

    Recently collected some pussy willows. There were some kind of seedlike pod at the end of some of the branches. What is that?

  • Claire March 30, 2022

    I live in California where we do not have pussy willows but they are shipped here and available around February/March for sale at some retail stores. They are already dried out stems so they need only be placed in a vase or decanter of some sort and no watering is necessary. They will last for many years. I have some that I’ve had for at least 10 years. Being a native New Englander, I love pussy willows!

  • virginia February 24, 2022

    I have a weeping pussy willow. The buds are turning yellow with fuzz. So does it shed that stuff and turn into white buds?

  • Debbie Krummreich November 16, 2021

    I have a pussy willow tree. Just love it. My tree started very small and is a great big shade tree. My dog always thought it was his tree. I have had no problems with it. Birds love it. Watching the buds in different seasons is my favorite. My friend got several branches, and gave me a couple. Then I gave a few away and kept one. From that one, I got a huge tree.

  • Steph April 22, 2021

    If you plant pussy willow, be sure to stay away from your water and sewer pipes. Find that spot in your yard that stays wettest after a good rain.

  • Linda Polier April 4, 2021

    I may be the winner for the longevity of my pussy willows. Mine are in a vase I entered in a flower show when I was in second grade. That would have been the 1953-54 school year!

  • Dorothy Badham March 30, 2021

    I saw some pussy willows on my walk this morning but was unable to cut a few as they weren’t in reach. I love to include them in spring arrangements but find them hard to get. Growing up they seemed to be more prevalent but now seem rare. Why is that?

  • Martha Callaghan-Chaffee March 22, 2021

    If I dry my pussy willows (I have to find some to try yet) will they when dried las from year to year>?

  • Delores Scarcella September 30, 2020

    How do you start a plant? Does it grow from seed? Can you purchase one? I’ll procure one in any way possible. Does it grow when you just stick it in the ground after it has been cut? What kind of provocation does it take?

  • Joseph Minella July 20, 2020

    I love pussy willow but wonder if I can keep it small, more like a shrub? I don’t have the spot for it to get too big.

  • Eve April 11, 2020

    Would pussy willows grow in Colorado?

  • Kimmie Lynn March 16, 2020

    I love pussy willows! They are one of my very favorites! I too have some in a vase that I have had for over 23 years now!

  • Maria Ramos March 13, 2020

    Pussy willows always remind me of my mom! I always get a bunch and dry them out. But this time I think I will follow BBG’s advice about watching their cycle.

  • Mayda Diaz March 1, 2020

    Got some pussy willow stems. I will keep them in water and when can I plant them in soils. Also, can they be placed in a pot? I live in Florida, the southern area. Please let me know when I can plant them either pot or land.

  • Zihao Wang February 16, 2020

    Willows also rely on insects for pollination. They also provide nectar for the pollinators in the very early spring. Not all catkins are made the same.

  • Connie Bernholz May 27, 2019

    I recently rooted some pussy willows and wonder if they like sun or shade and how much water do they need?

  • Mike April 21, 2019

    Pussy willows, a very important part of Dyngus Day!

  • Ginger April 20, 2019

    I took a stem from a flower arrangement & planted it in my garden. No fuss, no muss….now have a very large bush. Love it…..thanks.

Submit a Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this article. Comments are moderated and will be posted after BBG staff review. Your email address is required; it will not be displayed, but may be needed to confirm your comments.

Image, top of page: Elizabeth Peters