Plants for Pollinators: Pussy Willow

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the best plants for pollinators from coast-to-coast. Drawing from our books 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, Gardening for Butterflies , and our Monarch Nectar Plant Guides.


Pussy Willow

Salix discolor

Pussy willow is much loved by florists and decorators eager to bring some of the natural world indoors at the end of winter. The fuzzy tufts adorning the straight and sturdy branches are actually the unopened buds of the flowering plant. When left on the plant and out of the florists shop, these fuzzy buds burst forth into airy masses of bright yellow, pollen rich blooms. Pussy willow, a small tree or large shrub, is one of the earliest blooming plants in the landscape, making it a vital food source for hungry pollinators.

When not in bloom, pussy willow is fairly unassuming. Though it has glossy green leaves and can be pruned into a variety of shapes, it’s frequently a somewhat gangly, multi-stemmed small tree growing to an average of 15′ in height. Pussy willow may be overlooked as an ornamental in favor of showier trees, but its value to hungry pollinators emerging in the early spring, and its status as a larval host for a broad range of butterflies and moths make it practically a “must-have” for the pollinator garden.  In early spring the bright yellow blooms become a hub of activity, buzzing with frequent visits from honey bees, mason bees, mining bees, and other early pollinators who are attracted to its pollen rich blooms. In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic the tree reliably blooms before fruit trees and spring ephemerals filling a need for pollinators who may emerge on those first few warm days in late February or early March.

 

Pussy willow supports a wide diversity of early pollinators from tiny mining bees (left) to hungry honey bees (right). Photos by Justin Wheeler

 

As a larval host plant, it is broadly used by some 18 butterflies and moths including the exotic-looking cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) and Io moth (Automeris Io), as well as the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) amongst many others.

Native Range: An easy to care for deciduous shrub or small tree, pussy willow has broad distribution across the northern tier of the U.S. into Canada. Many non-native species have been introduced for their ornamental value and do not serve as larval hosts, so it is important to seek out the native species.

Best for: Providing an early food source for bees, larval host for wide range of butterflies and moths.

 

Known for its showy, silky blooms, the small tree is an exceptional early food source for pollinators and host to 18 butterflies and moths. Photo (L) Justin Wheeler, (R) CalPoly Urban Forest Ecosystem Institute

 

by Justin Wheeler, Web and Communications Specialist


This plant and many others are featured in our book Gardening for Butterflies, available here.

 


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