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What are Withies?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 16, 2024
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Withies are lengths of willow stem used in a number of rural crafts, including thatching. The singular form of the word can be spelled either as "withe" or "withy." Although the term normally refers to willow, similar flexible wooden stems are sometimes called withies, even if they are actually made of hazel or ash rather than willow.

Withies are collected from a number of different species of willow, including Salix acutifolia and Salix viminalis. These trees are usually pruned using a method called "pollarding." In pollarding, the upper growth of a tree is regularly cut off to encourage the growth of new wood. This new growth produces the long, thin stems best suited for use as withies. They are flexible and can be bent at sharp angles without splitting.

Withies are used to create rods for thatching, a traditional craft of the UK and Ireland. In thatching, bundles of straw or other material are laid down to cover a roof. Withy rods then cross these at right angles, holding them firmly in place. Withies make an excellent material for thatch rods because they are strong, light, flexible, and resistant to moisture.

Withies are also used in a large number of traditional rural crafts, particularly in southwestern England. The Somerset Levels are a major center of willow goods production, and willow plays an important role in local culture and folklore. Withies were traditionally used to make baskets, which has led some species of willow to be known as "basket willow." Gardening implements such as trellises and plant supports are also made from willow, as well as decorative items and furniture such as chairs, stools, and tables. Interest in ecologically-friendly burials in the early 21st century has led to the production of willow coffins.

Because of its role in rural society, willow appears in a number of folk songs, beliefs, and customs. One of the most unusual of these is the traditional English folk song "The Bitter Withy," in which Mary uses a willow switch to spank a mischievous baby Jesus. Angry at the beating, Jesus curses the withy. This is said to explain why the willow rots from the inside out.

Withies appear as an element of a number of English place-names. Great Wytheford in Shropshire is named for the presence of willows on a riverbank, while similar names are found at Withiel Florey, Withington, Withnell, Withycombe, and Withybrook. Many of these place names are found in the west and southwest, reflecting the prevalence of willow in the landscape.

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