Strip the willow: The National Museum of Rural Life’s willow harvest

Willow harvesting at the National Museum of Rural Life. Picture: Ray Cox (
Willow harvesting at the National Museum of Rural Life. Picture: Ray Cox (
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The willow harvest at the Museum of Rural Life is an opportunity to get creative with a plant that promises warmth and colour, even in Scotland’s darkest winter.

THE words harvest, February and Scotland don’t usually appear together, and certainly not in a way that conjures up warmth and colour. But even on the darkest days, one plant can promise all this to the garden: colour, creativity, practicality and magic. Next Sunday, when the willow crop is harvested at the Museum of Rural Life, the cutters will bring in 200 kilos of inspiration.

Lise Bech, one of the organisers of the harvest, calls willow a “pioneer” plant. “It was the one plant that, after the ice age, grew instantly. It’s a bit like a northern European bamboo.”

Lise grows a wide variety of willows for her work as a basketmaker, and has a wealth of knowledge about its uses in the garden that has led to her collaboration with the museum, near East Kilbride.

“When the museum opened nine years ago, I approached them to see if they were interested in having a willow bed as part of an outdoor display. The first year, we planted 800 plants in 22 varieties, from minuscule to vigorous. It was a 100 per cent success rate – all the cuttings took.”

It was apparent that they were on to something good. Willow used for craft needs to be harvested, or coppiced, once a year. The first willow at the Wester Kittochside site was harvested seven years ago. Harvests are open to the public and those who take part are encouraged to use willow, either for crafts or to create garden structures. It’s not just the aesthetic, but educational, uses of willow that make it so useful. Children find it irresistible, and Lise has been involved in many projects that have brought tunnels and arches to primary schools, more of which are creating gardens to aid learning.

Willow is subtle enough to be grown even in small gardens, where rods can be planted to form the basis of tepees, arches, or simply used as plant supports. However the scale of what can be achieved with it can be seen at some of Scotland’s larger gardens. At Wormistoune House near Crail in Fife, willow chairs lend a magical quality. Katherine Taylor, head gardener, says: “They have enhanced the character of our lovely wildflower meadow within the walled garden in a very informal and natural manner. We like to think of them as our fairy thrones for a king and queen in what is a very magical fairy garden.”

The chairs, which have been there for many years, are nearing the end of their life. “I’m planning to try to replace them with new willow structures before the spring if we have time,” says Katherine. “They have generally been pruned each year to maintain the structure but I think that the time has come now to start again. We’ll probably do two chairs or a bench this time.”

At Cambo House, also in Fife, beautiful willow works have been created in workshops for children, led by Jon Warnes, who makes living sculptures. These include tepees that are illuminated to stunning effect. “Willow is lovely for children to play in,” says Catherine Erskine, who raised four at Cambo with her husband Peter. “We use willow as part of ongoing environmental workshops. The structures are trimmed and then we can use the offshoots to make more.” Although Cambo is renowned for its snowdrops, the atmospheric woodland willow sculptures show how well some plants lend themselves to inspiration.

Willow will root when forming the basis of structures, and cuttings for this purpose should be planted within the next two to three months. “You have to strike while the growth hormones are there,” says Lise. “The rods are thick and there is a lot of life in them; keep them cool and dark until planting.”

To build an archway, she suggests starting with 20 rods on one side and the same on the other, then starting to weave. The rods should be pushed 10in to 1ft underground. They will send out side shoots which need to be woven in. “You need to keep it in check but need some growth in the structure so the rods stay alive. It’s a balance between trimming the structure to stay neat, and life. If there are children in the area then it needs to be kept safe.

“The range of uses the plant has is quite daunting,” adds Lise, who is also a member of the Scottish Basketmakers’ Circle. As part of the harvest event, she covers how to grow and use willow, talking about its uses from humble crafts all the way up to use of salicin to develop painkillers. “Then, despite the weather, we harvest it.”

About 150-200kg of willow is collected. 
“We are very scientific about how much each variety has produced over the year. People can take cuttings for their garden or use them for working with crafts. You can dry them outside, but ideally you should bring them into a barn or shed for a few months to dry out and get rid of the water content for use in weaving.”

As well as providing a living garden feature, willow makes an attractive alternative to a fence. Lise, who is originally from Denmark but now lives in Ayrshire, recalls plans for an opencast mine opposite her home. Within a year she had a screen. Salix ‘Britzensis’ produces stems in orange and red; ‘Lasiandra’ offers a pale cream and Salix ‘Daphnoides’ is a dark purple. It would bring a rich tapestry to any winter garden, and not one that’s hard to weave. Lise adds: “It’s a fantastic plant, and it’s ready and willing to grow.”

The willow harvest is on 3 February at the National Museum of Rural Life at Wester Kittochside near East Kilbride. Booking is essential. For more information see Wormistoune House and Cambo House are open under Scotland’s Gardens; Cambo’s snowdrop festival begins on 2 February. See for opening times.