Types of willow
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.
Back in Roman times, Somerset was at the heart of Britain's willow industry and two thousand years later, it could be argued that this is still very much the case.
Stepped basket by Rachel Poole
The Somerset Levels (where we grow over 60 willow varieties on 100 plus 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).
Willow is so versatile. Depending on the variety, you can steam it, strip it, dry it, soak 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 for basketry
We'll kick this guide off to some of our favourite types of willow with the variety that we grow the most of, Black Maul (a Salix triandra).
Black Maul is a very forgiving 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 and is one of the best types of willow to use in beginners basketry.
Black Maul stripped of its bark
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.
Top tip - Don't buy Black Maul as a living willow. Use it as a brown willow in basketry.
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.
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
While Dicky Meadows tapers, the 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.
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 - A fabulous willow for making medieval or re-enactment baskets
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 (willow spiling).
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 in order to make it malleable.
Leave Flanders Red in the sun and it gets 'burnt' a beautiful golden brown/red/orange - colours that look amazing in baskets.
Top tip - Flanders Red is great for living willow work
Whissender (another Salix triandra) is a variety of willow we haven't planted for years. 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 - This dries to a warm brown/yellow colour
This year, we planted more Pheasant Brown (mollissima). This willow is 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. It is another type of willow which is good for basketry work.
You’ll find other useful information in the Help & Advice section of our website. There’s information on Buff, Brown, Green, Steamed and White willow plus advice on soaking times.