Willows. There are many varieties of willows. All willows of which I am aware can be utilized to make hand drill fire. Those most useful include what I call Mullefat, so-called because it was once famously popular among gold rushers out west to allow their mules to browse and get fat on. It grows in low-lying swampy places in fields or groves. While this willow is common out West and is widely known among old-timers and bush-crafters as good for starting fire using various friction methods, I am not sure that it is the same stuff I call Mulefat here in West Tennessee.
MY stuff has unusual colors during Fall and Spring that become hard to miss in the thick groves in wet or low-lying areas. The colors are gradations of green in the spring and become orange and yellow and blazing red in the fall. The brush grows head-high or slightly higher–offering straight sections of branches than can be harvested green and dried or searched for dead branches for immediate use. These shrubs may actually be a form of Dappled Willow or other variety. But since all the willows I have ever tried seem to work reasonably well as spindles when used on fire-boards of the same stuff.
Other willows that I use include those growing along the edges of ponds, lakes, and streams. They have long narrow leaves. The one pictured below is growing by and in my pond. A neighbor once wanted me to let him pull it up with his tractor because he said it is a snake haven. he is right, but I explained that I like it growing there for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it provides shade when I want to fish in the hot sun.
Another unrelated use for most kinds of willows is to make a pain relieving home remedy infusion of bark in regular water, letting it set for a day or so in a glass container in the open sun. This infusion is the original source of aspirin. My son is a pharmacist and it is my understanding that if aspirin was just discovered today, it would probably be heralded as quite the cure-all for its many benefits. It would also probably be patented and cost a bundle to buy. Indeed, it seems that every year or so new benefits are being announced for aspirin. It truly is a wonder drug. Isn’t it interesting that those things so readily available and taken for granted, get so little attention. I have been known to chew the bark to relieve pain as well as placing a piece of still damp fresh bark on a painful area of the skin, a sprain, or what-not.
And I have one more incidental sue for the infusion. I little goes a long way for this–but it makes an effective root simulator when transplanting or rooting most plant cuttings. I read this, and have tried it. I am convince that it works. You can also use regular asperine, but the tendency is to use too much, which will not work. If you break off a very tiny piece of aspirin and dissolve it in gallon of water–that is likely sufficient for use as a root-stimulator. Meanwhile, the only requirement to use willow for friction fire starting is that it needs to be dead and dry.
Wild Sunflowers, also known as Jerusalem Artichoke look in leaf and flower exactly like domestic sunflowers–but they are smaller–except in height. These plants have straight stems that are ideal for fire spindles using the hand drill method once dried. They have small prickly stickers that need to be scraped or otherwise smoothed for use with bare hand spinning. These are also good plants to know about for foraging. The roots were said to have been cultivated by American Natives and and are still prized for their edible potato like tubers.
At this time of the year, both domestic and wild sunflowers can also be found in full bloom. Their stems make excellent hand drill fire spindles. The domestic stems are maybe a little better simply because they tend to grow with larger mature diameters. Wild sunflowers look very much like domestic sunflowers, except the flowers and leaves are smaller. They do get about as tall. They are also known as Jerusalem Artichoke because of some transliteration of one common name. I don’t think they are native to Israel. They are also called Sun Root and a variety of other names I don’t recall.
Wild Sunflowers are widely recognized and grow naturally in America, concentrated in the South Eastern United States, but they can be found growing virtually anywhere. . They are said to have been cultivated by American Natives and early settlers and are still prized by foragers. I have found the seeds to be too small to be worth the effort, but these plants produce tuber roots reminiscent of edible cattail roots–like a long thin potato.
You’ll see these growing in fields and by roadsides alongside other yellow summer flowers. You can distinguish them by their distinctive broad leaf shape and obvious sunflower shape and color; they generally tower over other yellow flowers. These I spotted on the way to the post office yesterday. (If you hear about an old fat man getting run over while crossing the road with a handful of flowers–yep, it was probably me.)
These are also one of the stems that I value for teaching hand drill fire making when their diameter gets bigger and they naturally turn dry later in the season. On a scale of one-to-ten, with my preferred Goldenrod and Mullein and very dry Cedar somewhere around eight on the scale, I would place Sunroot stems about a 6 or 7. They are but one of a host of other usable plant choices. One thing I really like about them is that they grow very straight and the stems can be smoothed of the prickly surface with a rock or knife blade so they are less inclined to hurt your hands, although as with all hand drill materials, you must always take care not to overdo it–or you will get blisters. Depending on how dry and decomposed they become during the late part of the fall and winter, they may not hold up under the downward pressure of a bow for turning. I have found that they can be used for hand drill turning much later in the season. (This is true of most weed stem spindles.)
Wild Sunflowers are easiest to spot now while they have live flowers and leaves. I try to note where they are growing when they are like this and harvest the stems when they are thicker and naturally dry in the fall. They can also be cut and allowed to dry out of the elements for this purpose, but it takes a week or so. Since I advocate learning to make fire from immediately available wild materials, I guess this latter approach is cheating, but it is useful for learning primitive fire methods. It is also gratifying and useful to be able to do this.
I have not recently harvested the tuber roots (as in almost half a century), but this may be the year, since it is on my Top Gazillion Do List for one of my blogs. We’ll see.
Goldenrod has many varieties. Those larger diameter varieties that I know as Solidago are among my favorites for fire making spindles when they dry in early fall and continue to stand stand into mid-winter. These smell nic ewhen they burn. The odor
There are half a dozen or more thistles that grow in the USA. They have prickly thick that start out green and milky and grow quickly both in height and in diameter. As they blossom and produce various types and colors of flowers that later turn to downy fluff that sails away with tiny seeds attached, they get stiffer and tougher and by mid-summer the soft green stickers become menacing thorns. The leaves eventually turn brown or black and gradually crumbly. These can be used in late summer or early fall as soon as they are can be harvested dry, but the thorns are nasty until mid to late winter. By then they are not only among the last picks of weed fire-stems that remain usable–they are also among the best of all.
This one is what I call Bull Thistle. I think it’s the correct common name. I missed the flowers somehow, but they are usually pink or purple. This one has one straight and tall stem. I see some similar variety clustered out with multiple stems. I failed to photograph any of these while they had flowers this year. The flowers are pretty. Actually the plants themselves are quite pretty, but they are considered an undesirable weed to most domestic lawn folks. This is one that I cut out of my front board fence row after the neighbor boy Weed-eated most of the other grass and weeds. He said his Weed-eater wouldn’t begin to cut it off at the base. I took a machete while still in my church clothes, but I forgot my phone to take a picture with it still standing. It is hard to tell how tall this section is from the picture, but to provide context, this is the top third of it. From top to bottom the whole plant was over six feet high, which is higher than I usually see them.
It was on the outside of the hog-wire reinforced board fence and too hot for me to trek around to get to it in my a suit. So I whacked down what I could and dragged it by the top leaves down to my driveway. I tried to gouge at the two inch base through the hog-wire with the machete, but it was too tough to take down. This one had viscous thorns that could really hurt you. I will have to use a bow saw to get it down. This part had wilted a bit by the time I came out with my phone to walk the dogs and finally snapped this picture.
Since I have it, I will put the thorny nuisance somewhere out of the way of pets and grand-kids and let it dry. Generally, there are many more options to use for fire spindle materials than these thistles–until mid-winter when this becomes one of the few stems left standing. By then they are naturally dried out and the thorns are easy enough to knock off and smooth out with a machete. When they reach that state, they are very good fire stems and easy on the hands once scraped and rubbed with beeswax. I am guessing that his one cut green and thriving will be a bugger to deal with even when it is sufficiently dry enough to make fire.