Working with Willow


Willow is easy to grow and creates many opportunities for activities in the school grounds.

Willow facts and figures 

The Latin name for willow is Salix, and the family is Salicaceae. This gave its name to salicylic acid, which is the precursor of aspirin. There are 400 species of willow, with leaves varying from long, slender and shiny to round and woolly. Plants can vary from massive trees to tiny creeping shrubs.

Many have attractive, coloured bark which makes them good garden shrubs for winter colour as well as being attractive for basketry. Flowers are produced in the form of catkins, male and female on separate trees. You can tell which is which as the males produce pollen, and often have larger, more attractive catkins. Pussy willow is a well-known example. The female catkins produce nectar. Both can be an important food source for bees in early spring.

Uses of willow

Historically willow has had a very wide range of uses. Many of these persist, and new applications such as living willow fences have been developed in recent years.

Living trees are used for:

  • Stabilising polders and river banks 

  • As windbreaks 

  • Screening out traffic noise and dust 

  • Producing biomass for energy generation

Willow products include:

  • Baskets of all shapes and sizes 

  • Hurdles 

  • Aspirin (now produced synthetically) 

  • Tally sticks (used to record financial transactions in times past) 

  • Coracles 

  • Cricket bats 

  • Polo balls 

  • Charcoal 

  • Plant supports 

Living willow structures

Willow is suitable for making living, woven structures because it is flexible and fast growing, it produces long, straight shoots, and it is a tough and tolerant plant that will grow in most soils provided they are not too dry. You can use it to make a range of living structures including fences, domes, bowers, tunnels, arches and even chairs. 


  • Choose a site away from walls and buildings, where there is plenty of sunlight but the soil is not too dry

  • Use fresh willow during the dormant season (November to March)

  • Make individual planting holes, or dig a trench, 30cm (12in) deep

  • Use cuttings at least 45cm (18in) long, with the base cut diagonally

  • Plant two-thirds in the ground

  • Space cuttings 45cm to 60cm (18in–24in) apart 


  • Control weeds e.g. by using a mulch

  • Add fertiliser once a year

  • Weave in new growth

  • Prune in late autumn

  • Use prunings for new projects