A guide to bare root whip plants

“Whips” are slender, unbranched bare root trees or hedging plants grown from seed in bulk in open fields by us and others, typically used in forestry, farm hedgerows and amenity schemes.  Bare root whips are mostly “lifted” the following autumn/winter (those are called 1 year old whips or seedlings) or the autumn/winter which is 18 months after sowing (and those are called 2 year old whips or undercuts).  Some species of bare root whips are grown from hard wood cuttings (eg white willow, common osier, black poplar).  They all have a central leader and whether or not they have side stems (depending on the species), they will not have had any pruning of the top growth but some plants have their roots pruned to encourage root branching. 

Whip heights

Whips are sold in various heights – generally 30/40cm, 40/60cm, 60/80cm and in the faster growing species, 80/100cm are sometimes available as well (where the soil provides good nutrient levels and there is adequate rainfall or irrigation to encourage faster growth).   In those species that are in short supply, sometimes 30/40cm plants are offered, though generally these are kept by the specialist nurseries like ourselves and grown on for a further year when their value is higher.   Those measurements are all in metric but actually when the term “bare root whips” was most popular, all measurements would have been imperial so whips would be described as under 2ft, or 2-3ft or over 3ft and indeed many of our customers today still place their orders in imperial measurements which is just fine with us.

Species of whips

Whips are thought of as unbranched plants but actually that differs by species.  The main component of a farm hedgerow is hawthorn and those whips are slim and unbranched (which is why 50% or even up to 70% of a mixed native hedge is comprised of hawthorn) but in many other species there is a higher degree of branching – good examples would be field maple, blackthorn, dog rose which are all sold as bare root whips but actually have a high degree of top growth branching.   It’s even possible to buy Yew whips but those are bushy evergreens so in this case the word “whips” is just being used to indicate a young bare root plant.

Cost of bare root whips

Because whips are mostly grown from seed in bulk quantities (hundreds of thousands of plants per acre) and are mechanically sown using specialist seed drills on the back of tractors and because they need little human intervention, and don’t need glasshouses or polytunnels, electricity, growing medium or pots, they are very cheap to grow and that is why, despite being a traditional old fashioned method of growing plants, they are still massively popular today – with millions of trees and hedging bare root whips being sold each year by a handful of specialist growers like RJ Trees and Hedging. We have another blog on the benefits of bare root whips which covers the cost and other benefits in more detail.

Origins of the name “whips”

We haven’t been able to trace the origins of the name “whips” but we do know that it goes back to the time when horses were the sole mode of transport and putting two and two together, we assume that they are named after horsewhips, being of very similar thickness, length and flexibility, though let’s hope no poor horse was ever encouraged to go faster with a prickly hawthorn whip!

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