Types of willow

25 September 2021

There are hundreds of different types of willow to choose from. While willows (Salix) can be found all over the world, it is Somerset that has long been regarded as one of the best places to grow it.

Stepped basket by Rachel Hutton

Back in Roman times, Somerset was at the heart of Britain’s willow industry. Two thousand years later, it could be argued that this is still very much the case.

Willow for basket weaving

The Somerset Levels (where we grow over 60 willow varieties on nearly 200 acres) are renowned for producing some of the most important species used in basketry and sculpture work; Salix triandra, (Almond-leaved willow) Salix purpurea (Purple willow) and Salix viminalis (the Osier).

Steamed willow
Steamed willow

Willow is so versatile. Depending on the variety, you can steam it, strip it, dry it and use it freshly cut. The Musgrove family has been growing willow since the 1920s, so we know our butt ends from our tips!

Types of willow – Best varieties of willow for basketry

Let’s kick this willow guide off with some of our favourite varities. The variety that is grown most extensively on our willow farm is Black Maul (a Salix triandra).

Black Maul is a very forgiving and supple willow. You can do virtually anything with it! Dry it with the bark on and use as brown willow, boil it, steam it or strip it (to use as white willow). This willow is held in high regard by weavers. Black Maul is one of the best varieties of willow to use in beginners basketry.

Stripping willow
Stripping willow rods on our farm

Types of willow – Black Maul

Many acres of our land are devoted to growing Black Maul. However, this is a tricky variety to grow as Black Maul requires a great deal of maintenance. The name is somewhat misleading as this willow isn’t black – it really only takes on a black hue when steamed.

Black Maul willow
Black Maul willow

Top tip – Don’t buy Black Maul as a living willow. Use it as a brown willow in basketry. Great for beginners to use.

Dicky Meadows willow

The next variety of willow that we’ll take a look at is Dicky Meadows (a Salix purpurea). Although not grown commercially as much as Black Maul, Dicky Meadows is another very popular willow for us. It is a sleek, fine willow often used in basketry work.

Dicky Meadows willow tops
Dicky Meadows willow tops

When dry, Dicky Meadows has a grey / pale green tint. Place this willow in the sun and it turns a light orange. Dicky Meadows is an excellent choice for fine work in basketry. The willow rods are usually very straight and taper off quickly.

Top tip – Brilliant for fine basketry work

Brittany Green willow

While Dicky Meadows tapers, our next willow, Brittany Green, is very different (although it too belongs to the species Salix purpurea). Brittany Green willow rods stay the same thickness almost throughout the entirety of the rod. The name is somewhat misleading as it is predominately dark grey. The top section of the willow turns a purple/dark brown colour when dry. In the sun, Brittany Green gets a lovely grey/purple tip.

Brittany Green willow
Brittany Green willow

Its dark colour gives Brittany Green a rustic feel and it can be easily mistaken for a foraged willow. Think days of yesteryear and coppicing.

Top tip – Brittany Green is a fabulous willow for making medieval or re-enactment baskets

Types of willow for revetment – Flanders Red

Next on our list is Flanders Red. This is easier to grow than Black Maul as it is far more resistant to disease. When green and fresh, Flanders Red is great to work with. It’s really good for living willow work especially when longer lengths are required. Alongside outdoor sculpture work, we would also recommend Flanders Red for restoring or protecting river banks.

Flanders Red willow
Brown (dry) Flanders Red willow

Flanders Red has a waxy skin and can be hard to work with when used in basketry. If you’ve bought Flanders Red as a brown willow, (i.e. it has been dried with the bark on) it will require a good, long soak to make it malleable.

Leave Flanders Red in the sun and it can get ‘burnt’ a beautiful golden brown/red/orange – colours that look amazing in baskets.

Top tip – Flanders Red is great for living willow work. Not so easy to use in basketry.

Whissender willow

Whissender (a Salix triandra) is a variety of willow we don’t grow that much of. It is similar to Black Maul. The rods are stout and robust and a yellowy colour. These chunky rods are ideal for big work. Whissender isn’t as flexible as Black Maul, but it is still a very popular willow in basketry.

Top tip – Whissender dries to a warm brown/yellow colour. Chunky rods are ideal for bigger work.

Pheasant Brown willow

Pheasant Brown (mollissima) is a variety of willow that we are planting more of. The rods are a rusty red / brown colour. The bottom 1 – 2 feet of the rods are covered with a distinctive pattern of white lines, taking on the appearance of broken leather.

Pheasant Brown willow
Freshly cut Pheasant Brown willow

Top tip – Pheasant Brown is a good choice for basketry work

Old French willow

Old French works very much like Black Maul. The yellowy rods are very flexible. The colour is similar to Whissender while the rod is around the same thickness as Black Maul. This variety may have been brought over originally from France. It is currently quite rare in the UK.

Old French willow
Old French willow

Top tip – Old French is a great alternative to Black Maul and is extremely flexible when soaked and allowed to mellow.

You’ll find other useful information in the Help & Advice section. There’s information on buff, brown, green, steamed and white willow including comprehensive advice on soaking and mellowing times.

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