The Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow has a history of over 20 years in our garden. My mom originally received the first cuttings from a work friend who had a connection to one of the Boston Garden Clubs. She was excited to bring home five small rooted branches of this exotic plant for the garden. She even had a few to spare and shared them with a neighbor across the street. Of course, the cuttings that ventured across the street took off and grew into a beautiful tree. The ones my mother planted didn’t make it through the first season.
So the next year, she grabbed a cutting from the neighbor. This exchange took a few seasons for the plant to finally get established in the garden it was originally intended. Eventually, with pruning to remove bottom branches, my mother created a small, beautiful tree.
In late winter the weeping, twisted, burgundy colored branches of the Fantail Pussy Willow are covered with tiny, soft, shimmery silver buds, actually known as catkins. By mid-spring, the branches become covered with gold puffs (I almost wrote ‘Gold Fingers’ in keeping with this story’s title!!) of pollen. By summer it leafs out to create a unique summer /fall ornamental shrub.
Over time, new cuttings from the established Pussy Willow were shared with friends and neighbors, but unfortunately with a less than 50 percent success rate (mostly because non-gardeners wanted to try to plant them and didn’t follow the simple instructions.) The one other place where the cuttings did well was in Hampton Falls, on the New Hampshire seacoast. My friend Bobbi – a true gardener – was able to create a beautiful tree from one of the early cuttings. It eventually reached over 8 feet tall.
Everything changed in 2011 when the now infamous Halloween Nor’Easter hit New England. The heavy, wet snow decimated many of the trees and shrubs across the region – including the Pussy Willows that we worked so hard to propagate in Nashua and Hampton Falls. The weight of the snow and wind split the trees in half, all the way to the ground. (Lilacs and Bradford Pear trees were also hit hard across the area.)
Bobbi chose to simply remove the damaged tree from her Seacoast garden. In Nashua, my neighbor did some pruning and was able to keep most of the height of the tree shape he created. On the other hand, in our garden, a decision was made to cut the damage all the way back to ground level to see what would happen. (We also knew we could start all over again with a cutting from next door!)
While this Pussy Willow grows relatively fast, it took a couple of years for it to eventually fill in the back area of the garden. Since receiving the first cuttings 20 years ago, my mother always called it a ‘Weeping Pussy Willow’ (Fake Gardening News!)
We finally learned this plant’s true name at the annual Boston Flower Show in 2014 – it is a Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow. There was a vendor at the show from the midwest with thousands of cut stems, selling them for about $15/bundle. My mom and I talked to the grower and learned this Pussy Willow is meant to be a shrub and should be cut back hard every year in late winter, just at the silvery catkins start to emerge.
Even with this newfound knowledge, we never got out in time during 2014 to cut the branches back – then in 2015, during our hysterical/historical winter, the deep snow cover through late March made it a challenge to even get to that part of the garden.
Finally, all conditions were perfect in 2016! I went out on a bright late winter afternoon and cut the beautiful branches back by almost half. By the time I was finished, I was worried that I’d cut too much from what suddenly became a bare tree trunk. On the plus side, we now had a huge pile of Pussy Willows branches to use for decoration.
Yes, Pussy Willows Galore!
I used many in my own home and shared even more with friends and neighbors. They could also be enjoyed on Main Street in Downtown Nashua at Scontsas Fine Jewelry & Home Decor. My friends, Philip and Amalia are both gardeners and used many of the Pussy Willows to decorate their beautiful store, inside and out last spring. (If you visit their store, tell them I sent you – they are regular readers of this blog, too!)
The cut stems, dry and keep their silvery buds when put into dry containers. For people who want to try to grow their own Pussy Willow shrubs, a little bit of water in the container keeps the branches alive, allowing them to root and eventually transplanted. Here are examples of keeping the branches in dry containers in my home (on the left) and also being enjoyed at Liz’s home (right). Liz was highlighted in the Garden with Grace Blog a few years ago when we Gardened at the Gardner Museum in Boston.
As March 2017 arrived, I’ve now CAREFULLY followed a full cycle of the Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow. While it was cut back hard last year, there were still some beautiful curvy branches to cut for decoration – but not nearly the bushels we had in 2016! I went light on the cutting this year, so that that we can have a larger and more mature bounty in 2018. In late February, I put five branches in water (with a few branches of magnolia and flowering crabapple) to force some early spring flowers in the house. The magnolia bloomed within a week – the crabapple should open within the next few days.
The Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow is already self-rooting and will be planted back into the garden in late May.
The cycle continues.
Special Note: I’ve had this blog – with its clever title – in mind since last spring. But held off on posting because I wanted to highlight a full growing cycle of the gorgeous Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow in our garden. I planned to publish this story in late fall of 2016. Ironically and unfortunately, when I first completed this post, one word in the title was making headlines tied to the US Presidential Election – and honestly, I didn’t want to change it. As a result, I held off to rewrite the ending and finally finished and posted this story in early March 2017! (I’m sure that some Google searches will unexpectedly bring some search results to this blog since this word is still appearing in news feeds today — for those who found my story this way, thank you for reading until the end!)