The silver furry catkins of pussy willow are one of the first signs of spring. While there are many different species and varieties of willow, which all bear catkins, the one most widely grown in gardens and best known as 'pussy willow' is Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’, or 'Kilmarnock willow'. This is a small and compact deciduous tree, ideal for small gardens. It grows to around 1.8-2.4m high with a spread of up to 1.5m, and forms a stiffly weeping ‘umbrella’ of branches. Yellow-green stems are smothered in fuzzy silver catkins from late winter to early spring on bare twigs, before the leaves open. The pollen-laden catkins are immensely popular with bees. Rounded mid-green leaves appear after the catkins.

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The Kilmarnock willow is sometimes referred to as ‘weeping willow’ but is not to be confused with the tree more widely known as weeping willow (Salix x chrysocoma) which quickly grows into a huge tree. There are other willow species that are grown for their decorative catkins, and which range in size from compact shrubs up to small trees.

How to grow a pussy willow tree

Grow pussy willow in moist bit well-drained soil in sun to partial shade. Support the stem with a stake initially, until it's established. Keep well watered in its first year. Remove damaged or crossing stems and then thin out stems from the crown each autumn, rather than trimming them, which can cause congestion.


Where to grow a pussy willow tree

Pussy willow tree planted near a garden path
Pussy willow tree planted near a garden path. Getty Images

The Kilmarnock or pussy willow has a compact weeping habit and is suitable for small gardens. It does best in full sun but will grow in light shade. The branches will eventually grow right down to the ground so any plants growing close by should to be low, ground-covering, and tolerant of shade. Alternatively, grow a pussy willow tree in a courtyard or surrounded by a hard surface such as gravel or paving.


How to plant pussy willow

Pussy willow is an easy tree to grow on any reasonable soil as long as it's fertile and doesn’t dry out quickly. While pussy willow does best in moisture retentive soil, it suffers in waterlogged ground, unlike some other willows.

Planting a pussy willow tree is best done in autumn so it can become well established before the growing season. However, spring or even summer planting is fine as long as the tree is watered regularly during dry spells in its first year. Plant the tree so the top of the rootball is at the same level as the surrounding soil, backfill around the rootball and firm the soil around the roots to avoid leaving air pockets. Water thoroughly to settle the soil.

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Supporting the tree with a stake is important as the top-heavy head of branches is likely to catch the wind and damage the newly developing roots. Secure the tree to the stake with a rubber tree tie, or a wide flexible material such as old nylon tights. Check the tie for rubbing from time to time and loosen if necessary.


Where to buy pussy willow online

How to care for pussy willow

Apart from regular watering until the tree is established, little care is needed during the first few years apart from removing any dead or damaged stems. Thin out older trees that become dense and congested by removing entire stems back to the main framework of branches. Avoid shortening stems as this will make congestion worse by encouraging lots of shoots to develop.


How to propagate pussy willow

It's not possible to propagate pussy willow trees because the shape of the tree is achieved by grafting goat willow (Salix caprea) onto a standard rootstock. This means that if you take cuttings from your pussy willow, you will end up with a goat willow, which is not usually considered 'garden worthy'.


Growing pussy willow: problem solving

Pussy willow tree is easy to grow and usually trouble-free given the right growing conditions.

The fungal disease anthracnose, scab and canker can sometimes occur, causing brown or black spots on the leaves or young stems, and lesions on the stems. Shoots or larger stems can die off. Prune out dead or dying stems and any affected with lesions. Aphids and caterpillars sometimes appear on the tree, but these are part of the ecosystem of your garden and provide food for birds, so should be welcomed. They rarely cause a problem as long as the tree is healthy and growing strongly.


Advice on buying pussy willow

  • Check the height and spread of your Kilmarnock willow before buying – what you think may be a bargain could actually be a very small tree that takes a few years to grow into the space you have allocated
  • Check each plant over for signs of pests or diseases. Ensure the plant is healthy before planting

Where to buy pussy willow online

Pussy willow varieties to grow

How to grow pussy willow - Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock'. Getty Images
How to grow pussy willow - Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock'. Getty Images
  • Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’ is the only pussy willow that forms a small weeping tree. Height up to 1.8-2.4 m, spread to 1.5 m.

Other willows grown for their decorative catkins include:

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  • Salix daphnoides (violet willow). Purple-coloured stems contrast with silvery catkins. Cut back annually in late winter. Vigorous, reaching up to 2.4m.
  • Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ (Japanese pink pussy willow). Eye-catching fluffy pink catkins followed by blue-green leaves. Forms a rounded bush up to 1.5 m high and wide.
  • Salix hastata Wehrhahnii. Silvery catkins produced on purple-brown stems. Compact and dwarf in habit, maximum 1 m height and spread.
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