Pussy Willow – Salix Discolor: Longevity, Diseases, Nativity

Pussy Willows are a tall, sometimes bushy shrub that is loved for its catkins. Catkins are fuzzy oval-shaped, early spring flowers along the stems. The cuttings are dried and used in floral arrangements to decorate homes.

10 year old American Pussy Willow shrubs
10 year old Pussy Willow Shrubs. At their peak, they were about 20 foot tall.

Lifespan and Causes of Death

Fast-growing but short-lived, American Pussy Willows are generally a healthy, carefree shrub.

Major portions with discolored bark, peeling bark, and no leaves is a good indication your shrub is in trouble. Outside of a lightning strike, fire, or some other unusual event, if your Pussy Willow is dying, it could be from 3 of these 4 things:

  • Age
  • Insect Damage
  • Disease
  • Location


S. Discolor (Pussy Willow) is a short-lived perennial shrub living 20 to 25 years. They love water and not enough can reduce its growth and shorten its lifespan. Extreme weather changes from year to year can also have an effect on longevity. How old is yours?

Insect Damage

In general, insects are not a major problem for Pussy Willows. Bagworms can look very unsightly but do not usually cause death. These other insects can exfoliate a tree and it can still survive: cottonwood leaf beetle, gypsy moth, willow leaf beetle, and willow sawfly.

Even though insects aren’t usually detrimental, they weaken the tree and open the door for diseases.

Peeling bark and broken limbs.
Aged and neglected, it was time to cut them down
We left a small part on this one

Diseases of American Pussy Willow

This willow grows fast and is part of what shortens its life. It also makes it weaker. The wood can split and give disease another way to get in. The following diseases can cause your willow to die.

Cytospora Canker

canker on peach tree
Cytospora Canker on my Peach tree

Is caused by a fungus that takes advantage of many different trees and shrubs that are already in a stressed condition. Look for black spots on the bark and oozing orangish sap. You might also notice a foul salty odor.

The cankers will kill off branches and left unchecked will eventually kill the whole tree. Younger trees will die faster, older ones slower. The cankers can be cut out if caught early. You can refer to this detailed report on Cytospora Cankers from Illinois University on prevention and control.

Willow Blight

blight on willow leaves
© Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Is a combination of two fungi, black canker, and willow scab.

Look for the tips and leaves of stems dying and black areas on the bark.

Bacterial Blight

Bacterial blight on leaf
Bacterial blight on a leaf. Photo source Wikimedia CC

Your shrub may look like it’s dying if it has a bacterial blight (Pseudomonas syringae). Leaves will be wilting and look for brown spots on leaves and brown streaks on stems.

Affects many different plants.

Ways to Extend the Life of S. Discolor

In its natural habitat, you’ll find American Pussy Willow along the edges of streams and low-lying areas that hold water. They do best in full sun or minimal shade. We want to mimic that habitat as much as possible.

Provide Plenty of Water

My garden butts up to old farm fields on two sides. Where the plowing stopped along the edge, there is a little hill caused by the plow pushing the soil out away from it year after year.

These little hills created an area on one side that would hold water for a few days longer than the rest of the yard. If you are familiar with permaculture, swales are a common practice. My hills were very much like a swale. That is where I planted my willows.

Some years later, we removed the hill near the willows because mowing there was problematic for extended periods of time. I believe the drastic change in the amount of water available shortened their lives and led to the eventual demise of my shrubs.

Remove Damaged or Broken Limbs

Loose bark and open areas on limbs allow insects to take up residence. They damage the shrub further thus allowing more access to diseases.

Inspect your shrub in early spring, mid-summer, and late fall for damaged branches. Pussy Willows do not have extremely strong wood and are subject to damage from heavy ice and wind storms.

If you plan to harvest stems for drying, wait to prune until after the catkins are starting to wither.


Coppicing is a method of being able to use trees and shrubs as a renewable resource. Simply put, cutting the shrub or tree down to 6″ to 12″ or even to the ground and it regrows. Pussy Willows respond well with this method and you should see significant growth by years 2 or 3.

This type of pruning also produces very straight stems. These straight stems are perfect for harvesting with catkins.

Stages of coppicing a Pussy Willow Shrub
Stages of pruning.
Image source Wiki Commons CC-by-SA

Is Pussy Willow Native Where You Live?

map of where Pussy Willow is native in the United States.
Pussy Willow is native in the green states. Photo source: USDA.gov

Pussy Willow (Salix Discolor) is reported by the USDA as native in 21 of 48 contiguous states in the US and most of Canada. 4 states report nativity across the whole state with 14 reporting only some counties. Montana and Mississippi only report 1 county each in their state, Deer Lodge and Washington respectively. Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia are listed for the whole state but there is no county information available.

The table below lists the states according to the span of where Pussy Willow is native in that state. If you live in a state that is only partially covered, check for your county by zooming in on the USDA Plant Profile map for Salix Discolor.

Across Whole StateSome Counties Only
New HampshireIowa
Rhode IslandMichigan
No County Data AvailableNew Jersey
ColoradoNew York
North CarolinaNorth Dakota
South Dakota
The most recent data from the USDA is dated 2014 and it’s possible that clusters of Pussy Willow have moved around since then. I can’t guarantee that the data is accurate today, but at the minimum, you’ll know the plants’ history in your area.

Planting a Pussy Willow in an area that it’s not native to does not mean it won’t survive but it can cause it stress and we’ve learned stress aids disease.

If given plenty of sunlight and water, in general, American Pussy Willows will die from age.

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