Viceroys and Pussy Willows

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Pollinator Gardeners, expand your plant lists to include Pussy Willows.

So much effort has gone into making pollinator gardens to benefit the Monarch butterflies that migrate through our area every year. And rightly so. All pollinators benefit from restoring even just a small amount of habitat. I want to talk to you about a butterfly that has been very prevalent in my gardens this year that might have also visited yours: the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus.

The Viceroy butterfly is commonly listed as a mimic for the Monarch butterfly. The Viceroy is said to benefit from its resemblance to the Monarch because the Monarch tastes bad. The bad taste came from the Monarch’s larval food, milkweed. It turns out that the Monarch also benefits from its resemblance to the Viceroy. The larval food of the Viceroy comes from the family Salicaceae which includes willows, poplars, aspen and cottonwoods. These plants contain salicylic acid (active medicinal in aspirin) which is also apparently distasteful to birds. To learn how to identify both butterflies, follow this link: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/Viceroy1.html

If you are looking to add some useful trees to your pollinator garden, consider the pussy willow. Native species are always preferred for meadow and large field plantings. Gardens have a bit more flexibility. Non-native pussy willow is not listed as an invasive in our area. The American pussy willow ranges from Alaska, across Canada south to Maryland and is a wetland shrub so it is not found in our area.

Non-native cultivars of the European pussy willow are numerous and most are adapted to grow in dry areas as well as wetter places. They are easily pruned to stay small. If purchasing from a nursery, care should be exercised in obtaining them. Recent cultivars are advertised as pollenless. This makes them useful to the florist industry but useless to the pollinator garden. The pussy willow is an excellent pollen source for native and honey bees that are out foraging in the early spring as well as a host plant for many species of moths and butterflies.

If this article has made you say where can I get one of these awesome plants, I have three, one-year old starts that are in need of good garden homes. Fall is a great time to plant trees. Contact me if you would like one: bowlenchris [at] comcast.net

– Chris Bowlen, HMN, October 2017

Top and bottom photos are of Viceroy caterpillars on pussy willow, September 2017, by Chris Bowlen

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