Sunday, March 13, 2011

Plant of the Week: black pussy willow

I've worked in close proximity to this plant for years but not until this spring did I realize the subtle fabulousness of the black pussy willow. These photographs were taken late February, and you can see above the black catkins just emerging from their protective winter shells.
Salix gracilistyla 'Melanostachys', or Salix melanostachys as some refer to it, is a sunny, water-loving shrub that doesn't get to much more than 6-10'. In the landscape I have found it to have a low, spreading habit that looks attractive incorporated into a slope or woodland setting. The species is introduced from Asia and is a healthy grower, but I think it is pretty easy to keep in bounds with regular pruning. As you can see above it doesn't instantly draw your eye to it this time of year but once you get a bit closer you realize what you are looking at.
A sturdy filler in the landscape for sure, the real draw of course is it's unusual late winter gift of these fuzzy black pussy willows. What we call pussy willows are the catkins of shrubs in the Salix or willow family, Salicaceae. A catkin is an inflorescence of flowers, meaning many many flowers grouped together to appear like a single entity. Yet it is pretty fair to say that catkins don't look much like flowers at all since they are much more utilitarian and lack showy petals which most people associate with flowers. Instead what you have are a bunch of "apetalous" flowers that bunched together look like this.
In the case of Salix gracilistyla 'Melanostachys', these male catkins emerge and remain as these fun black pussy willows for a period of a few weeks. Then as all pussy willows do, they change form. If you have ever brought pussy willows into your home to put in a vase or arrangement you were probably originally surprised that they didn't remain those cute little fuzzy treats. That's because most pussy willows are cut and sold before the flowers fully develop.
Here you see what the black pussy willow looks like once the male flowers have opened exposing their yellow pollen-tipped stamens. This was forced inside my office for the purposes of the blog and supposedly the ones still outside opening up will have a little more of a red hint to go along with the yellow. Either way I think they are great looking and quite unique.
Thanks to Dirr's "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" (Fifth Edition) and "Flora: A Gardener's Encyclopedia" for factoid confirmation

3 comments:

pbsweeney said...

How is it possible I'e not seen this?! Very cool.

barbarajsegura said...

where do you think is the best place in my landscape to plant this beautiful willow. I have lots of sun and open space in the front sides and back of my CT colonial home.

Alex said...

good question Barbara. Like other species within the Salix genus this guy is a real water lover. So if you have a spot that is often moist and gets light, dappled shade or better (sun) then that would be ideal. Just keep in mind that the shrub can get kind of wide and rangy so consider it something more for the landscape and not to be incorporated into your foundation plantings. Just my thought anyway, ...though if I had one of my own I'd probably see about giving it a heavy prune on a regular basis and see if I could keep it smaller and really bushy. But that would be some work to keep up. Anyway, I have pictures of it in summer somewhere and I'll try and track those down and post them for you.