How to Make Tulip Tree Bark Baskets

Tulip tree bark baskets represent an old but extremely "handy" craft from the hills of North Carolina.

| May/June 1979

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    Apart from the lacing, tulip tree bark baskets bear an eerie resemblance to actual tree trunks.
    PHOTO: DOUGLAS ELLIOTT
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    Each strip must then be peeled apart and the outer bark portion discarded.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Begin your basket by cutting the lacing from a young hickory or basswood. Just start at the bottom of the trunk and peel an inch-wide strip of bark, pulling the material toward the top of the tree.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Bend your "hoop" stick or bark into shape., set it in place around the mouth of the basket, punch another series of holes, and lace the wooden circle onto the container
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Punch a series of holes—about two inches apart and an inch in from the bark's edges—along each of the four "borders" that will be pulled together to form the container. Lace up the basket's sides like a pair of shoes
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Draw a line across your sheet of bark alfway between the two short sides. Connect the ends of that scribe with two curved arcs to form an elongated football shape. Then, use your knife to score the markings through the outer bark, fold the material (carefully!) along the cuts. Your basket will begin to take its final shape
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    On a smooth area of the trunk, mark off a section twice the depth of the proposed basket. This piece of bark should be peeled in one sheet from the entire circumference of the tree
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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Traditional Appalachian bark baskets—made from  young tulip trees and laced together with smooth strips of hickory—are about as useful and beautiful as any receptacle you're likely to find. Better yet, an experienced "mountain man" (like Paul Geouge, who taught this craft to me) can "whip up" one of these rustic carryalls in less than half an hour (and that sort of skill can sure come in handy when a long hike leads you to one of those once-in-a-lifetime berry patches!).

What's more, the attractive containers aren't limited to transporting foraged goodies. I've made bark backpacks, wastebaskets, clothes hampers, and—in a slightly-flattened form—even a briefcase!

Trees and Tools

Paul (who is a local authority on traditional handicrafts) tells me that the best time to strip bark from a tree is in the spring and early summer during the main sap flow that peaks, he says, under the new moon in July. This skilled artisan uses the bark of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) to form his baskets, and the inner bark of hickories (genus Carya) for lacing.

However, if such trees don't grow in your area, you can use basswood (Tilia americana) for both container and lacing. The bark of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) will also do, though this material is not as durable as the other possible choices.



Of course, if you can't find any of the above trees in your locale, you can experiment with whatever species are handy. You'll probably find a variety that will work just about as well as the more traditional materials.

(Keep in mind, though, that regardless of the type of tree you use, the bark that forms the basket itself will be at its flexible best right after it's removed from the trunk. So have all of your other materials ready before you start to "skin" that sapling.)

Ann Fenner
1/16/2013 11:12:27 PM

I've loved baskets since I made one in 7th grade. Turned my parents bathtub yellow from soaking my straw. My mother "treasured" the baskets I made for her and had them till she died. So I really enjoyed your article. I'd never seen that kind of basket before. I'm concerned because of your lack of a more detailed description of what constitutes "a tree that needs to be felled". I don't want trees cut down needlessly. I live in the Ozark Mtns of Arkansas and we have lots of trees & basket makers, but I'm not familiar with a "tulip" tree. Most of our baskets I have seen are made from white oak or willow. The Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View teaches all kinds of wood craft & basket making here in Mountain View, Arknasas. Making baskets is an art form to me. Thanks for the article.


Mary
1/16/2013 7:51:43 PM

I can't believe you didn't show an example of a basket made this way







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