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Meet Rona Dodds from Quercus Garden Plants

May 30th 2020

Willow, a tree now mainly associated with scrubby margins of rivers and streams, was once one of the most useful plants of the countryside. Willow wattles have been woven and used by man for thousands of years. The ability of these materials to weave, twist, whilst being durable and pliable, has been employed for many uses from Neolithic track-ways, Iron Age dwellings and Medieval livestock fencing. Archaeological digs in wet boggy places quite often uncover willow articles, almost as in perfect condition as they were when in use thousands of years ago, perfectly preserved by the peat around them.

Willow was used in basketry for tens of thousands of years, to carry or hold food or household provisions and for eel baskets, to catch this important food source in rivers. It may even predate pottery as a vessel. Babies were placed in willow cribs, the dead buried in willow coffins. Houses were made made of willow and mud, baskets lined with clay to make them waterproof and then of course there are medicinal uses.

Willow bark has been used as a traditional medicine for more than 3500 years. Unknown to the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians who made use of it, the active agent within willow bark was salicin, which would later form the basis of the discovery of aspirin. Many traditional therapies were used for pain relief over the following centuries but were not studied until the discovery that the bark of the cinchona tree had fever‐relieving properties. This bark was imported at great expense from South America and we now know that cinchona is a source of quinine, the first treatment for malaria. The use of willow bark was then investigated but the active ingredient in willow bark was not discovered until 1828.

Now willow has much more decorative uses and has sadly been replaced as live stock fencing by wire, or by plastic to hold food and many other things. There is thankfully a resurgence in the old and ancient crafts of willow weaving by artisans. Willow hurdles are in much more use in gardens and basketry has become an art, with many artisans running workshops so you can learn these crafts for yourself.

In the nursery we use willow in several ways, as a fedge (more of that later) and as supports for climbing plants. I make my own runner bean and hop supports using hazel rods and then weave willow at several different heights to give the plants something to climb through. An eco-friendly, recycled, recyclable plant support straight from the gardens.

Willow also makes great mazes, living huts and gazebos, much used by schools to create interesting and fun play areas for children in the play-ground. They lend themselves to this use by creating new material for weaving each year, for free, in the same way our fedge does. Often the children have been involved in the planting and creating of their willow structures, helping them understand the connection between plant, use and imagination.

     

Here in the nursery we use willow as a living art form, a fedge (a cross between a fence and a hedge) a barrier and boundary between the nursery and the farm. When we bought the nursery 5 years ago the fedge was very neglected, I don’t know how long it had been in existence but it was overgrown, spindly and with no density or height to it. The first year I was cutting down 15 foot long branches, small trees in fact. Once they were out of the way I could get a clearer idea what I was dealing with. There weren’t many long bendy branches from the previous years growth, it was all going into the these massive branches and small trees. So I wove in what I could.

In subsequent years the fedge has started to thicken up well. Every year now there is a good supply of new growth to weave back in to thicken it, add in new rods to close the gaps and to lift the height by a good two feet over the past 4 years. I find it a relaxing and therapeutic task to do in January and February. It’s easy to get lost in the twists and turns of weaving the willow, producing something of beauty and use. Even if there is snow on the ground, weaving the willow fedge is a great job to do when there isn’t much chance of doing anything else.

       

The annual willow weaving starts at one end of the parallel hedges, with cutting out the dead wood in the section I am working on. There is always some dead wood, willow always has a lot, even when growing as trees. Once that’s out the way, its easier to see what material is left to work with. With luck there is plenty new whippy lengths to weave in. Short, unusable branches are cut out and the rest woven in until it’s suitably chunky. If there is an excess of long rods I cut them off and use them as new rods to fill in gaps. I’ve now got the gaps between rods down to no more than 6 inches, making it more of a boundary and more secure against invasion of farm animals. Once that section is almost finished I move onto the next few feet and start cutting out the dead wood. The willow gets woven in both directions, to make it strong. This continues until both sides are finished. You can tell what the weather was like the previous year by how much long growth there is. The drier the summer the shorter and less long whippy branches there are to weave in. After a typical wet summer there is an abundance of usable branches!

 

       

   

   

There are also many decorative willows for the garden. They are adaptable plants which will grow in most conditions, except very dry. Some reach small tree height, others are shorter such as the woolly willow, Salix lanata.

We have three in stock here in the nursery:

Salix alba ‘Golden Ness’

Grown for its glorious golden winter stem colour, as the name suggests. These stems give the best colour if the plant is coppiced each spring. It looks particularly good when planted alongside streams or ponds and is ideal for use in a winter garden or with black or dark purple plants for a real colour contrast. H 10m, S 8m.

Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’

I love this willow for its dark catkins in late winter and spring which open to white, red and black. Very Gothic! Despite its messy growth habit, it is worth growing along side a pond or stream for those catkins. Cut back every three to four years to help its shape, H 3m, S 3m.

Salix lanata

A bushy, slow-growing small deciduous shrub with rounded, silvery-woolly leaves. Male catkins stand above the branches to 5cm, beginning silvery then becoming yellow. Female catkins are longer and greener. Grow in sun to partial shade in most soils. H 1.3m, S 1m.

You can read about willow in a Previous post about Salix. In fact that was the second blog I ever wrote, seven years ago!