Richard creates 'Gypsy Flowers' in a woodland glade

"As the name suggests, gypsy flowers were traditionally made and sold door to door by gypsies and travellers. They would have used young elder branches and inserted the stem into the elder pith.

Elder is not my first choice of wood  for this project as it can get quite brittle and harder to work with when it has dried out a bit. Through a good deal of  experimentation, I have settled on either hazel or willow for  this project. Freshly cut, wet wood  won’t curl and will  be more difficult to work with so I like to let it dry out for a few weeks before use. If I can get hold of overgrown willow, particularly the variety Salix viminalis, which is used in living willow structures, then I will often peel it and speed dry it in the car for a couple of days until it becomes ready to use. 

I enjoy demonstrating this craft at shows and have met many older people who remember their parents buying coloured elder flowers from gypsies in the past.

About the process : I like making things out of wood. The simpler the better. Sometimes I am motivated by perfecting the final product but usually process is everything. I make a very small percentage of my income from craft so it is never affected by the stress of production, marketing or selling.  It is all about chasing that elusive state of flow; the total, relaxed absorption in the task which takes over and excludes all conscious rumination. In 20 years of regular making, Gypsy flowers are the one thing that I never tire of making. The process is relaxing, meditative and not physically demanding apart from on the forearms and hands after a full day of making 100 flowers. Sitting out in the woods on a cold, sunny, February morning tops it all off nicely.

Step by step:using hazel cut from the hedge in my garden and bark peeled off 2 weeks ago.

  • Saw end flat
  • Drill a hole in the end – my drill is mounted in the ‘gypsy flower pony’ for ease of use.
  • Pull the stick against the blade to create shavings which stay attached to the stick. 
  • If the shavings (petals) are getting crowded, I fold them back to leave room for new ones
  • Keep shaving until the flower snaps off the stick. This is supposed to happen!
  • Pick up flower and find a stem – I use basketry willow offcuts – that fits the hole drilled at the start. This might need cut to size. 
  • Put the flowers in your flower arrangement.
  • Make more!

Richard Irvine is an accomplished greenwood carver, his specialist knowledge in woodlands and experiential education is born from a love of woodland and the outdoors and many years working for forestry and education organisations. He has published 2 books with Guild of Master Craftsman publications – Forest Craft  and Wild Days.