Willow is such a versatile tree. There are thousands of willow varieties. Within them are basket making varieties specifically grown for the qualities we need such as pliability, size, colour and ease to grow and harvest. We are very lucky that these varieties have survived and are still available to us for use.
My Favourite varieties:
- Salix viminalis golden rod: Not good for doing a border as it is soft and kinks easily. I love it for it’s yellow colour.
- Brown Maul: dark chocolate brown willow, growing strong, sometimes too strong, but is beautifully flexible.
- Harrisson: Strong growing variety, light brown, good for bigger baskets, very flexible, lovely to work with.
- Lancashire dicks: Beautiful slender and small growing willow with a curve. Dries to a disappointing grey colour but my absolute favourite willow. It weaves like a dream!
- Brittany blue/green: Very reliable variety, the blue one dries to a dark black/blue hue, the green one a little lighter. Love it for colour. Grows not too tall.
- Salix alba vittelina: yellow willow variety when growing. Dries to a reddish brown colour. Good all rounder, great for colour. There is a subspecies called Chermissina. That one grows a little less tall for me, it is more red when growing but dries to the same colour as it’s parent, vittelina.
- Slender tips/ red tips: Heavy cropping variety of long slender rods with red tips. Grows not too tall, makes plenty of thin rods that are great to weave with.
- Salix alba daphnoides: A dark purple willow variety! I love it for colour. Can sometimes be a little bit harder to weave with and can grow a little too tall but definitely worth to grow for colour.
- Welsh white: A very pale heavy cropping rod, grows a little bit shorter and is mostly quite thick but again worth growing for it’s very pale, nearly white, colour. Not good for uprights as the skin can crack easily when kinked.
- Tallow Triandra: A variety I got from Future Forests in co. Cork. It is chunky, dark brown with very obvious catkins. I love it because even though chunky it is flexible and dries to a lovely nearly purple brown. Great for uprights. Turns down a lovely border.
Where to get willow for cuttings and weaving:
- Most basket makers would have some willow growing or know someone who does. If you know a basket maker local to you ask for advice.
- Barry Noyce in Tipperary, his number is 086 8241393. He has a wide variety of willow varieties available and sells cuttings in the winter months.
- Future forests in co. Cork have basket making willow varieties for sale as cuttings. They are not great at labelling and named varieties. Their website is here
- The Organic Centre in Leitrim has some willow varieties for sale as cuttings. Their website is here
- Musgrove willow growers in Somerset, UK. https://www.musgrovewillows.co.uk/
- Somerset Willow Growers UK http://www.willowgrowers.co.uk/
- De Vos. Willow supplier in Belgium. Also posting to other European countries. http://devossalix.be/nl/
How to plant willow
Willow is one of the easiest trees to plant. Take your cutting, which is just a piece of a living willow tree of the variety you want to grow, and push it into the ground.
It is important though to keep weeds away from the growing stem. To do that most basket makers plant their willow through a weed suppressor. That could be plastic (like silage plastic) or the woven fabric weed suppressor (called mipex road stabiliser) or through a mulch (cardboard with woodchip/straw/hay or other material on top. This might have to be replaced annually)
The trees will need to establish for the first 3 years. After that weeds would usually be less of a problem as the tree growth will be dense and usually enough to shade out most weeds.
For harvesting you need secateurs or a sharp hooked knife.
Branches are cut off as close to the original stem as possible every year when the tree is dormant, when the leaves have fallen, which here in Ireland is from the end of November until the end of March somewhere.
Year 1: You will get a few branches on your stems, they will probably be small and have a lot of side branches. Some will be good to use for basket making.
Year 2: More branches then year 1. Most should be good to use in basket making.
Year 3: You are getting close to a full harvest. All branches good for use.
Year 4: your plants are now established and should be bearing a full harvest, up to 20 branches per plant or more depending on variety.
Bundles are tied (loosely) and brought into an airy shed to dry out. This process can take up to four months depending on the climate. They need to dry out completely before using them to weave.
Bundles of willow are sorted by size. This is called grading.
You will need a barrel or anything similar to stand your willow in. A measuring stick is put beside it. If the willow is long you will need a ladder/step of some sort.
Your measuring stick is marked every foot (or every 30cm). Start at the top. Grab the tallest willow sticks (let’s say everything above 8ft), give them a shake so all the smaller rods fall back into the barrel. Place the 8ft sticks on the ground. Next grab every stick above 7ft and put them on a different pile. You will work down the bundle like that creating different piles for each foot in length. Those bundles are then tied and left to dry out fully.
Before use willow is soaked to make it pliable again. Depending on what willow you use soaking time will vary. I only really use brown willow, which is willow with it’s skin still on. The rule of thumb is you need to soak your willow a day per foot. A3 ft bundle will be in the water, fully submerged, for 3 days, a 5 ft bundle for 5 days etc. Any barrel, bath, stream, pond will do as long as the willow is fully submerged in the water.
The soaking times will vary by varieties and time of year. In summer your water will be warmer, which could speed up your soaking time. In winter when the water is very cold you might have to add an extra day. Also some willow varieties might need an extra day or two (Salix Daphnoides is one of them). You will find that out from experience.
How to know when you willow is ready? Pull out one rod from the bundle and bend it 90 degrees or more. You want your rod to kink cleanly, without the skin cracking or the willow snapping.
I like to leave my willow to mellow for a day or two before use wrapped in an old sheet. This will allow the water from the outside of the skin to be fully absorbed and make is very soft.
Willow soaked in boiling water will only need a few hours to be ready for use.
Willow can also be under soaked (taken out before fully ready) and then steamed for a few hours. This will make it extra soft to work with. It will also stay soft for longer. Steaming can be done by putting your willow in a wooden box or bag and adding steam to it from a wallpaper stripper.
Learning to know when your willow is ready for use takes time and experience. There are really no hard or fast rules. Use your senses, especially touch.
Once soaked you need to use your willow as quickly as possible. There are however ways to keep it going for a little longer. Wrap in a sheet or blanket, leave it in a damp place (not wet) and check regularly. This way your willow could last for 4 weeks or more. If you feel it is getting a little dry soak it again for a day or two to top up again. Once fully dried out willow cannot be used or soaked again. It will never return to be fully flexible.