Harvesting & Preparing Spruce Roots for Cordage

Today I harvested Spruce roots to make baskets.

Spruce trees are a Christmas classic. These friendly evergreens crop up in many places. Not only can you eat the fresh green needles, you can use their shallow surface roots for cordage in basketry and bushcraft.

Spruce Tree
Spruce Tree” by Accretion Disc is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Cordage means lashings, rope, string, twine and whatever else you can name to tie things up and fix things with. It’s essential to carry some when camping out.

But what happens when you haven’t planned on being out? Or didn’t bring any?

Spruce roots are one good option. They are strong and flexible. First Nations Americans, Russians and Europeans have all traditionally used spruce root to tie things. They also use them to make stunning and practical baskets.

You will need:

Small knife

Gardening trowel


Heavy stone or brick

Bucket of water

Piece of freshly cut green wood roughly 30cm long and 2cm in diameter

Find a young spruce tree roughly 8ft tall. Starting around 1 to 2 ft from the trunk, scrape away the soil in a thin band until you hit a root. Follow the root along its length by carefully excavating around it. (Try not to yank on it, despite the temptation! )

Digging out a spruce root

You don’t have to go very deep. I got to the small surface roots within 30cm max. The soil was nice and light. Apparently it’s best to do this in May.

I hid from nosy joggers and dog walkers. Technically to dig up roots you need the permission of the landowner. I took only two or three small roots from each tree and put back the soil and moss as I found it.

I even gave back to the trees in the form of some lovely nitrogen-rich ‘yellow rain’!

Eventually I got enough for one basket!

The coil of raw spruce roots

Next it was time to head back to the narrowboat to process them.

You need to get the outer part (the red part) off if you’re planning to use the roots long term. This will rot otherwise.

I made a brake, which is basically a freshly cut stick with a split in one end! To make it I put a hatchet between my knees with the blade facing up and banged the stick down on it with a heavy brick.

With this I pulled the roots through the split until the red skin peeled off like a jacket.

Skinning the spruce roots with the brake

So i ended up with something that looked like this…

skinned spruce roots

Now after I’ve put it up over the stove it’s already gone dry after just a few hours!

The next part is to split it down the lengths to make nice fine cordage for basketry. I soaked it overnight as it dried very quickly and was impossible to split in that state!

Traditionally it is softened by boiling. I boiled it for 15 minutes, then got impatient and hauled it out!

boiling spruce roots dyeing the water pink!

This dyed the water orangey pink, which was nice! Maybe they can be used as a dye?

Now to split them. I made a split in the thick end of each root with a wood knife, then carefully peeled them apart. there’s a few tricks to this to stop it snapping off after 10cm.

Splitting spruce root

Rule 1: Pull both halves with equal vigour! If one side is taking over, bend that side of the root more. This should bring it back to the centre.

Rule 2: Follow the groove running down the middle of the root.

This was a very mindful practice. Keeping the split on course was fulfilling. and emptied my mind of all chatter!

Now allow these to dry out, then rehydrate them when you want to make a basket or tie something up!

PS: You will get mucky hands! BE WARNED!! Ha ha.

xx Hedgewitch Kat xx

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