© Kat Morgenstern, February 2006
The graceful birch tree has always held a special place in the people's hearts and minds, who perceived her as the youthful Goddess of love and light. Yet, her soft feminine and almost fragile appearance belies her hardy nature. Birch is a tree of northern latitudes and unforgiving climates that occurs throughout the northern hemisphere, from Siberia to Scandinavia, to Scotland and England as well as North America, the Himalayas, China, Japan and North Korea. Some varieties have traveled south to the temperate regions of the Mediterranean, and beyond - almost to the equator. In the southernmost regions of her range she prefers mountainous terrain. Humble and undemanding in her soil requirements, she will even grow make herself at home in sandy or stony ground, though her special affinity lies with water and her preferred habitat is found in boggy terrain. Birch is a pioneer she loves to settle where other trees fear to set root. Over time she 'cultivates' such lands, making it more arable and preparing it for other species to follow in her steps.
Her silvery white bark gives her a striking appearance. In youth, the papery bark peels off easily. It is thin, yet tough, and has in fact been used as paper in the past. As the tree grows older the bark begins to form a layer of cork that provides excellent insulation and protects her against the cold. The young twigs and branches are reddish brown and very elastic. Early in the year she is one of the first trees to put on her spring-gown of luminous green leaves. The triangular/heart-shaped leaves are serrated at the edges and covered by a sticky resinous substance with an aromatic, balsamic scent when they first emerge.
The flowers are known as catkins.. Both male and female flowers are present on the same tree, though they develop separately. The male flowers begin to develop in the summer, endure the winter and wait until the female flowers appear in spring. The wind acts as the pollinator and distributor of the tiny winged seeds, which are so light that they may be carried for several hundred miles.
Birch trees can reach a height of up to 30m. They reach maturity at about fifty years of age, but can live up to about one hundred years.
The people of northern Europe have long been very fond of this beautiful, slender tree with its white shining stem and graciously flowing branches. In their minds, it evoked the image of a beautiful young woman, which they identified with the Goddess Freya or Frigga. The Celts, who were equally fond of the Birch identified her with the virgin Goddess Bridha or Brigid. Etymologically the name Birch derives from the Sanskrit 'bhura', meaning 'shining tree' which no doubt is an allusion to the striking white bark and bright golden autumn cloak.
In Siberia Birch was regarded as the sacred world-tree, which served as the bridge between this world and the realm of spirits and Gods. At first, this may seem an odd choice, given the modest statue and strength of an average Birch tree, but may be partly explained by the fact that in those remote regions Birch frequently was the commonest, if not the only tree around. Another reason may have been its universal usefulness: Birch provides medicine and nourishment and its bark and wood can be fashioned into a large number of utensils, from birch bark containers, to coverings for the lodges, and even garments and shoes. The sap is rich in nutrients and the inner bark can, if need be, be ground into a flour to make cakes. This is considered famine food, a last resort if nothing else is available, but deer and most importantly, rein deer relish this inner bark, which is their most important winter food. The nomads on the other hand depend in turn on the rein deer, which stood at the center of their world and provided them with almost all the essential gifts that made life possible in these inhospitable regions. The reindeer was their spirit guide and sacred animal - and it also showed them where to find their most important sacrament, the Fly Agarics, a conspicuous toadstool, with a bright red cap and white dots atop. Fly Agarics form symbiotic relationships with Birches and often grow near them. Rein deer love this toadstool as much as Siberian shamans do. They are considered a sacred food of the Gods. On special occasions, when the Gods were honored in ecstatic celebrations, or when the shaman went on a spirit journey to ask for help and advice from the Gods, they partook of this sacred food. Thus, the Fly Agaric mushroom and the Birch tree became closely associated and both are shrouded in much mystery. Some legends portrait the Birch tree as a manifestation of the Goddess who offers her milk to the shaman as an elixir of life, while many scholars regard the sacred mushrooms as the Goddess' breast, and perhaps even the source of the fabled Soma, the sacred elixir of life and nectar of the Gods.
As one of the first trees to put on her spring-dress it is only natural that the Birch has always been associated with the life giving force and has thus featured prominently in all manner of fertility rites and magic. Birch signals the arrival of spring and traditionally farmers have observed her progress as an indicator to sowing their wheat.
In pre-Christian times Birch played an important role at Beltain celebrations, which were traditionally celebrated on the eve of the 1 May. Faint echoes of this pagan festival are surviving to this day as rural May-Day festivals throughout Europe. May-Day is the celebration of spring, of love, life and fertility. On this day the whole community, or sometimes just the young lads and lasses go out into the woods to fetch the 'Maytree', which oftentimes were Birches. Much fanfare accompanied the procession upon their return to the village. The tree was decorated with colorful ribbons, cookies and other goodies and fixed to a pole to tower high above the village. All day and all night the feast went on, with much eating, drinking, singing, dancing and merry making - much to the dismay of the church fathers. For centuries they tried to suppress these quaint old pagan celebrations, but in vain - the dance around the Maypole is still popular in many rural areas, though by now it has been sanctioned by the church.
The fertility and life-giving powers of the tree served as a 'village charm'. Accompanied by singing and dancing crowds it was carried from house to house to bestow blessings and protection to everything it touched. Later, the custom evolved into a form of flogging, also known as 'quickening'. It was thought that the mere touch of the birch twigs bestowed luck and fertility to those who came in contact with them. Thus the men of the village would take it upon themselves to bless the women folk with these fertilizing powers by hitting them with birch twigs. All female inhabitants, women, girls, cattle or farm animals, all received the same treatment. Eventually though, the custom changed and only children, mentally retarded people or delinquents remained the victims of the Birch rods, which was supposed to drive out the evil spirits that evidently possessed them. Of these, the practice to chastise the demons of disobedience that possess children with the help of Birch rods has persisted the longest.
Birch was thought to protect against all daemons and witches. In a milder form of exorcism than that described above, Birch twigs were often pinned above the doors of house and barn to avert their mischief and protect against or undo spells and curses, such as those that caused impotence, or those that caused the flow of milk to cease.
In magical folk medicine, Birch was associated with transfer magic used to alleviate the pain of rheumatism. Three days before the new moon the sufferer had to go and plead with the Birch tree to relieve him from his pains by solemnly reciting certain prayers and winding a wreath and tying knots into the bendy birch twigs. Thus the painful rheumatic knots were transferred to the Birch in exchange for some of the flexibility of her twigs.
Birch wood is light and rots easily, thus rendering it useless for construction work. However, the bark is extremely water resistant, a quality, which Native Americans have long put to use for waterproofing the roofs of their huts. They also fashioned special lightweight canoes as well as all manner of domestic items such as pots for collecting sap, or cribs to carry babies, shoes, lampshades and even toys from this versatile bark. In Europe, the twigs have mainly been used for thatching and wattle work and for making brooms. The brush ends of brooms, including those of witches' brooms, were also partly made with Birch twigs.
In early spring a sugary sap rises in the stem. To tap it, much the same technique is used as for tapping Maple syrup: a hole is drilled into the stem (1/2 cm wide and 3 cm deep), and a glass tube is inserted. One should not take more then 2-3 litres at a time and only 'milk' the tree once every two years. The hole must be sealed with special tree wax to protect the tree from bleeding to death. Ordinary candle wax is not sufficient, as it will just be pushed out again. This is best left to an experienced person as otherwise the tree may suffer great damage and may even 'bleed to death'.
Birch trees also yield a resinous substance called 'Birch tar', which can be extracted from the bark. It is very rich in tannins and is used for curing leather. It can also be used as an insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and gnats and as a balsamic healing agent for all manner of skin sores including insect bites.
The inner bark is rich in sugar, oil and even contains Vitamin C. It provides welcome winter nourishment for deer and other rodents when everything else is covered in snow. Native Americans used to prepare a type of flour from it which could be used for baking. Birch is not often utilized as firewood, as it burns too quickly. However, this can be of distinct advantage if one needs to get a fire going fast, or under wet conditions. Even green branches will light and Birch bark makes excellent kindling. The smoke also acts strongly disinfectant and when burnt as incense can ward off infectious diseases. Native Americans often burnt thin pieces of birch bark in their healing tepees, where the sick were isolated, in order to purify the air and kill off stray germs.
|PARTS USED:||Leaves, inner bark, sap|
|Leaves:||flavonoids, saponins, volatile oil, tannin, resin|
|Bark:||betulin (birch camphor), glycoside, volatile oil, tannin, bitter substances, resin|
|Sap:||Sugar, organic acids, amino acids|
|ACTIONS:||diuretic, bitter, slightly astringent|
Birch leaves are very useful as a diuretic and are employed in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and gouty conditions. They also have a reputation for dissolving stones. In Russia, an old folk remedy for rheumatism was to completely cover the afflicted person with Birch leaves, which resulted in a cleansing sweat and subsequent relief. The diuretic action also helps to relieve oedematous conditions and urine retention.
'It is a tree of Venus. The juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterwards; any of these being drunk for some days together is available to the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.'
A decoction of the bark can be used as a wash for impurities of the skin. Birch tar is often used as an ingredient of ointments for psoriasis and eczema.
The sap is a wholesome elixir that can be taken as a spring tonic. However, it has a tendency to ferment easily and thus is not suitable for long-term storage. It should be kept in a dark bottle and stored in the fridge. Adding some Cloves and a piece of Cinnamon also helps to prevent fermentation.
A compound tincture of Birch leaves can be used as a tonic hair rinse that promotes healthy growth of hair.
2 handfuls of Birch leaves
1 spoonful of Arnica flowers
1 spoonful of Nettle roots
2 spoonfuls of Nettle leaves
Cover with 70% alcohol, steep for 3 weeks, strain and bottle. Massage into the scalp and hair as a conditioner.
Or, make a strong infusion with the leaves and add 1 part apple cider vinegar.
Native Americans prepared a mushy paste by boiling and pounding the bark so it could be spread on inflammatory skin conditions, ulcers cuts and wounds. This brings down swellings and prevents infection and pus formation. They also extracted an oil by boiling wood and bark which is extremely effective in all kinds of fungal and parasitic skin conditions.
The North American species are different from the European white Birch. Their bark tends to be darker and has a distinct wintergreen flavour. In spring New Englanders enjoy a type of 'root beer' made from the twigs and sap, which apparently is very powerful. Euell Gibbons gives the following instructions:
"Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into a bottom of a 5 gallon crock. In a large kettle, stir 1 gallon of honey into 4 gallons of birch sap and boil this mixture for 10 minutes, then pour over the chopped twigs. When cool, strain to remove the now expended twigs and return the liquid to the crock. Spread 1 cake of soft yeast on a slice of toasted rye bread and float this on top of the beer. Cover with a cloth and let it ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle. This will usually take about a week, but it depends somewhat on the temperature. Bottle the beer and cap tightly. Store in a dark place, and serve it ice cold before meals after the weather gets hot." He also says don't' have more than a couple of glasses of this beer as it has a 'kick like a mule'.
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