Mention willows and many people first think “pussy willows”. Usually people think of the large catkins that are produced in the spring on Salix caprea, S. cinerea, or S. chaenomeloides, but many of the willows produce attractive catkins. Willows are dioecious, which means that male and female flowers are born on different plants. In addition, depending on the species, catkins are produced before leaves (precocious), at the same time (coetaneous), or after the leaves have formed (serotinous). So it goes without saying that there will be a lot of variation in how different cultivars flower and their ornamental quality.
Sometimes you get a package deal like these catkins on this Japanese variety that has ‘fasciated’ stems. Other times the catkins are small and almost inconspicuous like the ones below.
For some gardeners, the catkins are the whole reason for having the willows. The catkins are just an extra benefit for us. There is nothing like a cool, sunny day in February or March with the catkins popping on the willows. A little later and a little warmer, the anthers will start to open and bees will emerge to visit the flowers. That’s when I realize I better get working and get the willows cut before they leaf out! Right now I still have the time to admire the black catkins of melanostachys against the blue sky.
Greetings from the Skagit Valley on Groundhog Day. Or is it Candelmas? Or a celebration of the Irish Goddess Brigit? Or Saint Brigit? It is certainly a point in the year when we are thinking about the coming of Spring. Indeed the willow is beginning to swell its buds. Some of the earlier varieties are even showing their first catkins. I thought I would upload these photos Katherine took of a potato basket, or skib, being made. She took a series of step by step photos to use as a handout for an upcoming basketry class. An Irish basket seems appropriate to the day (since I don’t have any “Brigit’s crosses” to show – Update: we do have a Brigid’s cross post now). There are good photos and descriptions of skibs in the Irish basketmaker Joe Hogan’s book “Basketmaking in Ireland”.
We have been growing willow for basketry since 1994 at Dunbar Gardens. As Katherine became interested in willow basketmaking, she realized she would need to grow her own materials since very little cultivated willow was available to purchase in our area. In addition, it gave her more choice in selecting the size, color, flexibility and other characteristics of the willow she weaves with. As a result, we have tried quite a number of species and varieties of Salix here and currently have 60 varieties growing. We have planted over ten thousand willow cuttings on our Skagit Valley farm. Willow is easy to propagate in most soils. An eight to twelve inch cutting taken from a dormant one year old rod is planted directly into the ground in Spring. March thru April is an ideal time to plant. We have willows that are useful for basketry, garden trellises, living fences, furniture, and ornamental hedges. Willow is a very useful family of plants!
We have a list and descriptions of some of the varieties that we have had success with on our website. We are now cutting our willows and will begin shipping orders for cuttings next month.
Replica (on left) of traditional French oyster basket
Two willow baskets for packing oysters. The basket on the right belongs to Jon Rowley of Seattle who picked it up from a basketmaker in France back in the 70’s. Jon came by Dunbar Gardens after seeing my photos of Katherine’s baskets on Flickr.com. He brought his oyster basket along and left it with Katherine to check out. Jon works with Taylor Shellfish here in the Puget Sound region and has a vast knowledge and appreciation for oysters.
The basket is a traditional form used to pack oysters to market (baskets were then returned stacked in each other). Katherine made the basket on the left as a copy. (Not bad for a first go!) She admires the efficient design of the original – a stake on each side becomes the handle, the border narrow on the back, the hinges made from one piece, the slewed base, and no waling which makes the shaping and corners more of a challenge. She did find a short description of a similar basket in “La Vannerie – l’osier” which is a French basketmaking manual. We have put Katherine’s version to use as a kitchen potato storage basket