Baskets have been a centralized part of culture for thousands of years. With the need to hold berries during harvest or acorns while they dry, Native Americans long ago mastered the art of sourcing natural products to use in basketry. Through trial and error, tribes learned which portions of what plants could help with the task, and we all now get to benefit from that knowledge.
Tribes throughout the world became masters of understanding the changing seasons and how that affected the plants they relied on. For example, tribes in the Pacific Northwest sourced bark from ash trees while it was malleable during a short, three-week period in early spring. They discovered that outside this narrow window, the bark was too dry and brittle. The age of the plant also makes a difference. While some plants need to mature before providing adequate materials, others need to be sourced while they are young.
With this background of knowledge, the modern gardener and basket enthusiast can grow and source materials directly from his or her own yard. What a way to rediscover primitive skills and produce a beautiful product from your own property.
Here are a variety of options you can choose from when planning your basketry garden.
Ash trees are fairly fast growing so a grove of them will eventually provide materials for a plethora of baskets. Most commonly ash trees are cut down for the process of basket making so make sure that you select a very mature tree by taking a core sample. Your sample should show thick, mature growth rings. Once fell and debarked, those rings will become the material for your baskets so you want them to be thick enough to work with without breaking easily.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous basket material comes from the willow. Inasmuch, there are a variety of willow species you can use. Depending on your preferences and end goal, there are even different ways to grow the willow. Some basket weavers prefer to coppice the willow, which means cutting it down to the ground during winter. Other weavers are happy to source basket materials from just the dead or errant growth while allowing the tree to grow naturally. Three common varietals for basket making are Salix triandra, Salix viminalis, and Salix purpurea.
The bark of the poplar tree is another option for your basket weaving supply. Poplar trees grow quickly, shooting up over three feet per year, which makes them a popular and sustainable option. However, since only the sapling bark is used once the tree is cut, make sure you have another use for the rest of the tree, such as firewood or mulching chips. To harvest, choose a poplar with a base about 4-6” wide. Cut the tree down during the spring when sap content is high. Use a knife to strip the bark away from the tree. A leather strap cutter can also provide strips of bark. If you are not using your bark right away, roll it up inside out and bind it for later use. When you are ready to make your basket, soak or boil the bark to prepare it.
Most people are familiar with the common hazelnut, called a filbert in some regions. The commercially sourced hazel, however, is different from the native hazel that grows wild. They share many similarities, but basket weavers, including generations of Native Americans, rely on the native species for their basketry needs. The key to sourcing hazel for basket making is to select young branches that are flexible and strong. This means looking for branches that are no more than three years old. If the wood is too mature it is less flexible and harder to work with. Plan to collect your hazel during the spring when the leaves are beginning to develop. This typically means sourcing materials a year ahead of time. Look for sticks that are long, thin, and straight. Burning out hazel periodically enhances the development of strong young plants.
Due to organic growth pattern and strength, vines make a natural choice for basket making. Of course, vines can be invasive so you will want to contain, train, and monitor them while they grow. These materials are great for a looser style of weaving and can be sources from a variety of flexible materials such as honeysuckle, grape, bittersweet, and wisteria. Harvest the vines during the winter if they are available. Get to them before they begin to bloom in the spring.
Since rattan palm is mostly associated with the South Pacific, it may not be a viable material you can source from your yard. However, if you are lucky enough that palm grows well in your region, it’s another natural choice for basket making. Fibers from the center of the plant are commonly used in rattan furniture, laundry baskets, etc. However, this is a different material than the actual reed that is the layer below the rattan.
Another version of a reed, grass has been used as a basket material since the beginning of the craft for very good reasons. Grass is one of the easiest and fastest materials to grow for basketry. Look for varieties with a thick blade, preferably those that grow a few feet tall. Sea grass and sweet grass are two examples.