Like most gardeners, late winter is when our green thumbs begin to itch, and the need to get to work in the garden is too hard to resist. But, if you’re like me and live in a climate that’s not quite warm enough to spend much time outside, you have to resign yourself to indoor tasks, such as seed starting and propagating.
I must admit, however, that seed starting is one of my favorite gardening jobs. It’s when I get to make my final decisions for the spring and early summer garden, dig through my box of seeds, take inventory of my supplies, and get my fingers in a little dirt to prepare and seed my pots with a variety of edible plants and flowers. And it’s a heck of a lot easier on my back than hauling wheelbarrow-full loads of goat manure and straw mulch.
One task that is perfect for this time of the year is propagating shrubs and trees that root easily. This year, I decided that I needed a few more Salix discolor (American pussy willow) shrubs to add to my butterfly garden. And it’s easy and inexpensive (practically free in my case) to propagate willows by taking cuttings of mature plants.
Now, I feel like I should write some kind of disclaimer here because I know those pesky social media trolls might comment about nuisance willow roots without even reading this article. I am not, repeat not, talking about a weeping willow tree, Salix babylonica. Yes, I know that the roots of the weeping willow are invasive, and I do not advise anyone to grow those trees in a suburban yard. You will have problems with tree roots in your sewer lines and foundations. If you read a comment about the roots, rest assured that that person did not read this article. The roots of a 15-foot shrub are not as deep and invasive as those of a 50-foot tree (this is a “duh moment”).
Propagating a Willow Shrub
Native to North America, Salix discolor grows in many states and southern Canada, zones 4 - 8. And just like Salix babylonica trees, it thrives in full sun with moist soil. Growing up to about 15 feet, Salix discolor can be a hefty deciduous, multi-trunk shrub, or trained into a small tree with pruning. The leaves are shiny green during the summer, turning yellow in the autumn. These shrubs make a lovely hedge or specimen plant in a flower garden, paired with other butterfly-attracting plants, such as milkweed, monarda, and buddleia.
You’ll want to cut back, or coppice, a Salix discolor every few years to promote new growth, discourage pests and diseases, and maintain shape. This is a great time to keep some of the pruned branches to propagate into new shrubs. Or, ask your gardening friends if they have a willow in which you could take a few cuttings. Most of us would be happy to share or trade for a start of one of your plants because we know just how expensive gardening can be!
But what’s so great about Salix discolor is the silver-gray catkins that emerge in late winter/early spring. These cute, fuzzy little “kitten paws” are more than just a showy sign of spring. Tiny flowers pop out from the fuzz, providing an early food source of pollen for scavenger honeybees.
In addition, the Salix discolor is a host plant to many butterflies and moths, including: dreamy duskywing, morning cloak, eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy, and twin-spotted sphinx. There are also medicinal properties associated with all willow varieties, but I'll leave that information up to trained herbalists. Let's just say, it's important to have access to willow during, oh, I don't know, a zombie apocalypse or something.
Salix discolor and Salix babylonica are simply the easiest plants to propagate. There are three steps:
- Grab your snips (I guess they’re called hand pruners nowadays) and cut a few five-inch branches of your willow of choice.
- Place cuttings in filtered water (not tap water, especially if you have a water softener or it is chlorinated.).
Lessons Learned from Tree Propagation
That’s it. I promise. In a few days, you’ll start to see little white “bumps” on the cutting. Then, in about a week to 10 days, you’ll see little white roots stretch out. In about three weeks, you’ll be ready to remove the cuttings from the water and put them in pots with soil. They are not fussy, so I use plain ol’ potting soil.
And be sure not to dump the water used to root the willow. You can reuse that water to start other cuttings. Because of the salicylic and indolebutyric acids released from the willow, and now found in its rooting water, you have a homemade rooting compound that stimulates root growth in a variety of plants.
You can plant your new shrubs after the threat of frost has passed, watering regularly until established, but I usually wait until early September. I give my Salix varieties a little time to establish a good root system in the pots and I want to see a good amount of new growth, so it’ll better withstand the harsh winter conditions I experience in Central Ohio.
In no time, you’ll have mastered this easy technique to try on other shrubs to see what roots easily, such as forsythia and rosemary, to increase the number of plants in your garden … and impress your non-gardening friends.
Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page, and read all of her Mother Earth News posts here.
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