The heART of Ritual


A Guide to Sustainably Gathering and Weaving with Tree Bark

Would you like to have a go at making a woven bark sheath, or perhaps try you hand at some basket weaving? Getting hold of traditional, natural materials for making your own things can be difficult without a few pointers. I hope this article will help you on your way!

Do's & dont's

Do make sure you have permission to cut or harvest any materials

Do ensure to cut/harvest fresh plant materials on the new moon only (it minimizes risk of the tree/plant 'bleeding out'.

Do make sure you know how to cut/harvest correctly so as not to cause unnecessary damage to flora/fauna. If harvesting from a tree, be sure to use tree sealer over the cut where necessary.

Don't take more than you need

Do harvest with respect & gratification - leave a gift, say thanks, however you do it remember gathering materials is a reciprocal relationship.

Step one - identification

Trees with bark useable for weaving, sheath making, etc...

Sweet Chestnut - Castanea sativa

Goat Willow - Salix caprea

Crack Willow - Salix fragilis

Birch - Betula

Elm - Ulmus

Lime - Tilia

Lawsons Cypress - Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

Leland Cypress - Cupressus × leylandii

Monterrey Cypress - Hesperocyparis macrocarpa

Western Red Cedar - Thuja plicata

Eastern White Cedar - Thuja occidentalis

Cherry - Prunus

Spruce - Picea

The above list is not complete. I'm sure there are many other trees and plants suitable, however I've only mentioned ones which I have used myself.

The bark on all of the trees mentioned above grows in pretty much the same way, and thus the harvesting/preparing of it is essentially the same. The exceptions being Birch & Cherry, of which I will mention separately.

Step two - understanding trees & bark

I will now explain in very brief and unscientific terms how bark grows. Understanding this even in simplified form is essential to harvesting and preparing correctly.

Bark, like wood, has a grain 'direction'. This determines in which direction it is strong, and in which direction it is weaker. All the above trees (barring our exceptions) have bark grain running vertically up the tree. This means the bark will be very strong along its length, but prone to splitting along its width, much the same as wood in general.

Bark is in two layers, inner bark & outer bark. It's the inner bark we are after in all except Birch & Cherry. Once the bark has been separated from the tree, we need to peel apart the inner from the outer, to give us a malleable piece of material. On some species, the outer bark can be left on to add protection and look nice, however leaving the outer bark on can encourage mould growth, cause more splitting, and make the bark harder to work. If the outer bark isn't removed straight away, its almost impossible to do once the bark has dried.

The outer bark is the trees protective layer, the inner bark is how it transports nutrients. If we remove the inner & outer bark from the entire circumference of a branch or tree, it will die.

It is possible to remove a piece of bark from the tree without killing it, as long as you don't remove the full circumference. The rule of thumb used by First Nations peoples around the globe is never take more than 1/3 of the circumference of the tree, and it should heal and remain growing. Many of the ancient (still living) trees in the forests of North America bear the scars of harvesting from many hundreds of years ago. I have experimented with this approach on a number of small tree's over the years and all have survived and remained growing.

Taking bark from living trees is generally frowned upon, for good reason. Do you really need it? It's a big question to ask yourself before you harvest, and you should ask the tree too. I will let you make your own minds up on that one, though obviously don't go round doing this in parks or other places you don't have permission.