Natural Cordage


Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)
Common milk weed (asclepias syriaca)
Wood nettle (laportia canadensis)
Swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata)
Basswood/ Linden (tilla Americana)

These plants all share commonalities conducive of cordage making, long fibery strands below the bark.  There’s a few different ways of processing these plants, once harvested, they are stripped of leaves, and crushed exposing the long fibers, or  they can be left to soak in water until the bark easily peels off.

Once the fibers are freed, cordage can be made or the fibers can be dried and stored as is for later use, a quick soak in water will resoften them.


20140914_115025.jpgRope making tools

Two of these are edible,  wood nettle and common milkweed. The milkweed after a couple par-boils is safe for consumption,  young nettle leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and have been used as a medicine for centuries.
Dogbane and swamp milkweed are toxic, even the dust from the dried dogbane stem can make you ill,  if too much is inhaled.  Dogbane is also known as Indian hemp, and produces the strongest cordage out of the two, not mentioned here is the other form of Indian hemp and cousin to dogbane Apocynum Sativa, or Marijuana (which was never indigenous to north America. )

Basswood is a wonder of nature,  while not a plant like the other four mentioned, it’s inner bark or cambium layer have been used for cordage and rope for centuries and deserves to be mentioned here. The bark is removed in strips the length of the tree, the outer bark is peeled off leaving only the inner layers of cambium.  This cordage material unlike the others must be retted, the bundles of inner bark are placed in a slow moving stream or pond for a number of months. This allows the bacteria and microorganisms in the water to eat away the sugars and starches in the bark leaving only the long phloem fibers. Once a sufficient retting has been achieved, the bark is removed from the water and either worked right away or left to dry to be worked at a later time.

These natural cordages all produce different colored cordage; dogbane is a redish brown, the two milkweeds produce off white,  nettle with a greenish brown, and basswood with a light tan to off white color.

Traditionally these were harvested in late fall when the plants began to brown out, soaked, then processed. While basswood can be harvested nearly year round.

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