Wild berry picking was once a common summer activity throughout Appalachia, and before the advent of Styrofoam or plastic containers the homemade bark berry basket was just the thing to haul your treasures out of the woods with. No point in going home to fetch a bucket when you can just peel some bark off a tree with a penknife and whip up your own container on the spot.
Last week was the ideal time for making a traditional berry basket, for two reasons. First, the woods throughout Appalachia are full of raspberries, huckleberries, and blackberries. Second, the best time to strip bark from a tree to make said basket is during the main sap flow that peaks under the new moon in July—July 1 this year.
So you’ve been out fishing all morning, following the creek up into the mountains. You’re catching a few of them native speckled trout, but after a while the stream gets too small. So you call it quits and head up to the ridge for the long walk home. There you run into the biggest patch of ripe huckleberries that you’ve ever seen! You’d love to haul some of them berries home, but you ain’t got nothing to carry ‘em in….Well, if you knew how to make a berry basket, you’d just find you a young tulip poplar tree, make a poplar bark basket and tote them berries home, buddy!
—Paul Geouge, as quoted by Doug Elliott, in Primitive Ancestral Skills, edited by David Wescott
Typically, the berry basket is scored on the bottom in a cats-eye shape, and then folded upwards. The bark of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) is ideal to form baskets, and the inner bark of hickories (genus Carya) is best for lacing. You can also use basswood (Tilia americana) for both container and lacing. Sew up the sides with strips of bark, and add a handle made out of bark, vines, or a split piece of wood.
Bill Alexander, a member of the Tennessee Basketry Association and an authority on this type of basket, writes of another use of the bark basket in that group’s January 2008 newsletter: “Harold Hurst said that on English Mountain in Sevier County, Tennessee that his Uncle Ruphart Williams would take him out hunting for wild honey bees. He said; ‘We’d go out and hunt bees’ to rob the wild honey. They would look for bees watering in a stream and follow them to the wild bee tree. He said they would ‘Pull the bark off of a poplar and lay it out while it was green and cut it and shape it’ [to make a basket], and ‘We’d put the honey and cones in ‘em.”
People considered these baskets disposable, so very few examples of them survive in museums or private homes.