Pussy willows: pollinator and bird magnets

I used to think Pussy Willows were only good for branches in Easter flower arrangements. I had no idea that the grey, furry buds would become nectar-rich, pollen-covered catkins that attract many pollinators and early migratory songbirds. That was before I planted our backyard hedgerow that includes Pussy Willow shrubs in the far corner. Now, I witness their value to wildlife each April.

Furry Pussy Willow buds in late March. (March 19, 2020)

Harbinger of spring

In the spring, our Pussy Willow shrubs are the first plants to bloom. The buds’ fur coats trap heat to warm them above spring’s cool air temperatures; this extra cozy environment speeds up development, allowing the buds to bloom before other trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants (NatureNorth Biology of Pussy Willows).

Pussy Willow catkins starting to open. (April 12, 2020)

The buds soon open into catkins that resemble numerous flowers crammed together and without any petals. Male and female catkins grow on separate plants, so you need at least one of each to produce seeds. Male catkins are packed with nectar and pollen-laden filaments (stamens), while female catkins only offer nectar.

First food for bees

When Pussy Willow catkins open, they provide essential food for the year’s first pollinators — including overwintering honeybees and early-emerging ground-nesting solitary bees (Xerces Society Plants for Pollinators: Pussy Willow).

To collect pollen, female bees visit the ends of the stamens that contain lots of yellow pollen. 1. Honeybee with pollen packed onto her back legs; 2. and 3. Ground-nesting solitary bees covered in pollen.

To drink nectar, bees go deeper into the catkins below the stamens. In the first 2 photos, you can see the bees sticking their tongues out to drink.

… and for other insects

Being such a rich and early food source, Pussy Willows attract all kinds of hungry insects, not just bees. I’ve seen overwintering butterflies, flies, and ants visiting our shrubs as well.

A variety of other insects drinking nectar from Pussy Willow catkins: 1. Mourning Cloak; 2. Ants; 3. and 4. Flies; 5. Weevil.

Food for early birds

In turn, since Pussy Willows attract so many bugs, they also attract early insectivorous, migratory birds that depend on them. We’ve seen early-arriving Eastern Phoebes and Ruby-crowned Kinglets hunting for insects in the Pussy Willows, as well as ever-present Chickadees.

A Chickadee hunting for insects in the Pussy Willows. (April 26, 2022)

At first, I was a bit upset to see birds eating the pollinators I’m trying to help, but with so many insects flying around our shrubs, a few becoming bird food doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Besides, I’m happy to feed hungry songbirds that have just flown thousands of miles north from South and Central America.

All of the moving black dots are insects. No wonder the insect-eating birds gravitate to this shrub to find food. (April 30, 2022)

Once Pussy Willows spread, they form thickets that serve as nesting spots for some bird species, like Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers.

Later food for specialist insects

When Pussy Willow shrubs are finished blooming, they don’t look very impressive. Like so many other native plants though, they perform more than one job for wildlife. Once Pussy Willows leaf out, they become host plants for hundreds of moth and butterfly species and other specialist insects. These insects can only eat parts of Pussy Willows.

The Compton’s Tortoiseshell (1) and Mourning Cloak (2) butterfly caterpillars eat Pussy Willows leaves. The Pussy Willow Cone Gall (3) is home to larvae of a small summer fly, called a gall gnat midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides).

A welcome addition

I enjoy the wildlife Pussy Willows attract so much that I’m adding another cluster of them to our yard. Pussy Willows are easy to propagate by taking foot-long cuttings in the spring and sticking them in water until roots grow.

If you plan to add willows to your yard, keep in mind that non-native willow species — such as variegated and weeping willows that are commonly found in conventional nurseries — don’t have the same wildlife value as native ones (Xerces Society).

Pussy Willows are a good choice for urban yards because they only grow about 12 to 15 feet tall. You can also control their size, by coppicing them; cut all the branches a few feet from the ground, and then new branches will sprout. Once I have more Pussy Willows, I plan to coppice a few to make it easier to watch and photograph the insect visitors.

Don’t plant them near your house though because their roots can damage foundations and underground pipes. I planted mine in a back corner where they won’t become a problem. They grow in part-shade to sun — in our yard they get about 5 hours of sun. Despite their reputation as water-loving shrubs, they seem to grow just about anywhere. Our hedgerow is on a slope, in clay that dries out in the summer. Perhaps they would have more flowers and more growth in moist soil, but I am still happy with their performance in our less-than-ideal conditions.

2 thoughts on “Pussy willows: pollinator and bird magnets

  1. What an excellent piece and such great information! I’ve been hoping to add pushy willow to my yard, if you happen to get some started/ have some canes to share!

    I hope you are keeping well and enjoying this slow spring. I am living just quietly watching my garden unfurl.

    Sophia

    On Tue., May 3, 2022, 8:16 p.m. The Corner Pollinator Garden and Wildlife

    Like

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