What are the best plants for natural cordage?
A resource list of plants that can be used for natural cordage
This is a guide we have put together to list the best plants for natural cordage, based on our own experience.
Sitting next to a campfire slowly processing plant fibres into something as eminently useful as string or rope is possibly one the most relaxing thing I can do in the woods. Lying in a hammock and doing nothing at all is one of the others, but is less productive.
The plants that provide me with those fibres is determined by the environment I am working in – mostly the U.K./northern Europe and particularly North Wales. Plants like Nettles (Urtica dioica) and Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium, aka Fireweed) can be found along most of the hedgerows and field edges near my home, but in other parts of the world I would turn to different plants to supply me with the necessary materials for making cordage.
This list is not exhaustive, but I will add to it as time passes and I gather more information. I prefer to try things out for myself before listing them as a resource rather than solely relying on the information gathered by others, so the experience of others may differ from mine. It is also not a tutorial on making cordage from natural materials – those topics will be covered in separate articles.
Common or Stinging Nettle
Europe, Asia, Africa, N. America
A herbacious perennial plant, commonly found where present and growing up to 2m tall. Stinging hairs (called ‘trichomes’) cover the underside of the leaves and can leave an irritating sting that is remembered by all who come into contact with it.
The best time to collect them is during the middle of the growing season, where mature plants are easily found (tall and slightly woody stems, often purple in colour). Gloves are useful for collection to avoid being stung, but the brave will find that a firm grasp on the base of the stem and quickly running up the length will remove the leaves and their stinging hairs without injury. This isn’t always effective however…
Once flattened and the pith removed the rope lay method, with two strands, works best. Once dried it is reasonably strong, a little less than sisal string of the same thickness.
Rosebay Willowherb or Fireweed
N. America, N. Europe, N.Asia
The mildly dramatic name of Fireweed comes from the success of this plant as a primary coloniser after forest fires, gradually being overtaken by the growth of trees but remaining dormant as seeds underground, waiting for the next fire to clear a space.
Wet Fireweed cordage is disappointingly weak, and difficult to process. The ideal time to collect it is at the end of the growing season, after the white fluffy seed heads have appeared, but before the stems turn to dry stalks. They also benefit from some drying after collection before processing into cord.
The leaves can be stripped from the step, and then processed into cordage using a rope lay.
Spruce Roots (various)
N. America, Europe, Asia
Spruce roots are the steel wire of the plant world. They are easily found a few centimetres beneath the forest floor, normally in a network of different sizes to suit the needs of the forest builder.
The roots, once lightly cleaned and stripped of their outer ‘bark’ can be used straightaway, but if a finer cord is needed a skilled hand can carefully split the roots down their length, and even into quarters if necessary. We have shelters and structures built a decade ago using spruce roots that are still standing and show no signs of sagging or rot.
Willow (inner bark)
N. America, Europe, Asia
The thin and flexible bark on the younger stems of Willow trees is easily stripped by hand in the Spring and Summer, and coaxed away from the trunk by heating over a fire in Autumn and Winter. Once peeled away the thin inner bark needs to be separated from the tougher outer, and then boiled in a lye solution (campfire ash in water works well). Once processed this way the relatively brittle bark is much toughter, more flexible and is much stronger when wet.