The silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) is the most common tree in much of Europe. It is one of the first trees to grow back in an area after a mature forest is cut; this is probably a large part of its symbolic connection with new beginnings.
When the huge glaciers of the last ice age receded around twelve and a half thousand years ago, Downy Birch trees would have been one of the first to re-colonise the rocky, ice-scoured landscape. Hence, in botanical terms the birch is referred to as a pioneer species. Silver Birch is more prevalent today over the whole of Britain, and tends to grow most abundantly in the North West of Scotland. The Downy Birch isn’t so commonly today, but the Silver Birch is still the first tree to colonize waste ground, and is in fact considered a pest by some as it invades forests of pine, which are often grown as a cash crop.
Formerly covering the whole of the United Kingdom, it is a graceful and slender tree with a characteristic white bole. The name Betula is the family name that the birch belongs to, along with hornbeam and hazel, the Latin name pendula for the Silver Birch means ‘drooping branches’, and its habit of hanging down are another easy way of recognition. The Latin name of pubescens for the Downy Birch means ‘hairy’ which is reflected by its downy (hairy) twigs. Birch trees are deciduous (they loose their leaves in winter)
The Silver Birch thrives in dry places, whilst the Downy Birch prefers wetter locations, which is probably why Silver Birch are found to the East of Britain and Downy Birch to the West.
The Silver Birch seldom attains more than 80 years old, especially in a woodland where other trees will soon outgrow its height of 30 metres, with the Downy Birch attaining a possible 20 metres. The trunk of the Birch is slender, with a bark almost as tough as the wood of the tree, in Silver Birch the bark is silvery white in colour, making it easily recognised, the Downy Birch having a somewhat darker brown colour.
The leaves of both species are similar in shape, although there are subtle differences, it’s easier to attempt to distinguish the two by the colour of the bark. Birch trees are monoecious, which means they have both male and female flowers with pollination achieved by the wind. The male flower or catkin is drooping whilst the female flower or catkin is upright.
The word birch is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning a 'tree whose bark is used to write upon'. When the poet S.T. Coleridge called it the 'Lady of the Woods', he was possibly drawing on an existing folk term for the tree. Birch figures in many anglicised place names, such as Birkenhead, Birkhall and Berkhamstead, and appears most commonly in northern England and Scotland. Beithe (pronounced 'bey'), the Gaelic word for birch, is widespread in Highland place names such as Glen an Beithe in Argyll, Loch a Bhealaich Bheithe in Inverness-shire and Beith in Sutherland. The adjective 'silver' connected with birch seems to be a relatively recent invention, apparently making its first appearance in a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The birch tree stood for Beith, the first letter of the druidic alphabet or Tree Ogham (Birch or beorc was also the runic letter B). Beithe, has two meanings in Irish. It can mean "being," in the sense of the verb to be, and it is also a noun meaning "a being."
In early Celtic mythology, the birch came to symbolise renewal and purification. It was the sacred beth of Cerridwen, representing beginnings and birth.The whiteness of the tree's bark apparently suggested its connection with the White Goddess, who was both birthgiver and death-bringer in her Crone form as the carrion-eating white sow. In Herefordshire a birch tree decorated with white and red rags was propped against a stable door on May Day to prevent the horses from being Hag ridden by witches or having their manes knotted by fairires. 19th C navvies and their brides considered themselves legally married if they jumped over a brich broom held across the threshhold.
Birch was celebrated during the festival of Samhain (what is now Halloween in Britain), the start of the Celtic year, when purification was also important. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. Later this would evolve into the 'beating the bounds' ceremonies in local parishes. Gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to 'purify' their gardens. Besoms were also of course the archetypal witches' broomsticks, used in their shamanic flights, perhaps after the use of extracts of the fly agaric mushrooms commonly found in birchwoods. The fly agaric is the preferred ‘shroom’ of the Shaman, with the fungus found predominantly in Britain growing beneath a Birch tree.The Birch also represents the ‘mound of venus’ (female mons pubis), the besom when stood with its birch head upright represents the female, with the ash handle upwards it represents the male.
Interestingly, the birch also has strong fertility connections with the celebrations of Beltane, the second, summer, half of the Celtic year (nowadays celebrated as May Day). Beltane fires in Scotland were ritually made of birch and oak, and a birch tree was often used as a, sometimes living, maypole. As birch is one of the first trees to come into leaf it would be an obvious choice as representation of the emergence of spring. Deities associated with birch are mostly love and fertility goddesses, such as the northern European Frigga and Freya. Eostre (from whom we derive the word Easter), the Anglo Saxon goddess of spring was celebrated around and through the birch tree between the spring equinox and Beltane. According to the medieval herbalist Culpepper, the birch is ruled over by Venus - both the planet and the goddess. According to Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow bear a healthy calf.
On the Isle of Man, off the west coast of Scotland, criminals were 'birched' to purify them and to drive out evil influences.
Some say the birch is the only tree never to be struck by lightening, whether this is because it is associated with fertility or because its too well hidden in the woodland to be accessible is anyone’s guess. It is said that to see green Birch in a dream was an omen of illness but to see two birches growing together with briars on the grave of two lovers indicated that death had not divided them
The uses of birch are many and varied. The wood is tough, heavy and straightgrained, making it suitable for handles and toys and good for turning. It was used to make hardwearing bobbins, spools and reels for the Lancashire cotton industry. Traditionally, babies' cradles were made of birch wood, drawing on the earlier symbolism of new beginnings. In 1842, J.C. Loudon, in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs wrote that, "The Highlanders of Scotland make everything of it;" and proceeded to list all manner of household and agricultural implements as well as its use as a general building material. Though the wood lends itself well enough to many of these uses, the availability of the wood in the Highlands must also have played a part in its use. Loudon furthermore mentions that " … the branches are employed as fuel in the distillation of whiskey, the spray is used for smoking hams and herrings, for which last purpose it is preferred to every other kind of wood. The bark is used for tanning leather, and sometimes, when dried and twisted into a rope, instead of candles. The spray is used for thatching houses; and, dried in summer, with the leaves on, makes a good bed when heath is scarce." Of old, the Druids made the sap into a cordial to celebrate the spring equinox.
Th Birch is used as firewood due to its high calorific value per unit weight and unit volume. The wood burns quickly and hot, and emits a beautiful smell. Birch is prized by the Sami people as it burns well, without popping, even when frozen and freshly hewn. The bark is also used in starting fires. The bark will burn very well, even when wet, because of the oils it contains. With care, the bark can be split into very thin sheets that will ignite from even the smallest of sparks. Birch leaves make a diuretic tea and to make extracts for dyes and cosmetics. Ground birch bark, fermented in sea water, is used for seasoning the woolen, hemp or linen sails and hemp rope of traditional Norwegian boats.
Its sap was extensively used to make birch sap wine, especially in Scotland, where it is now making somewhat of a revival, especially by home brewers, although collecting the sap is made difficult as there is a two week window in early March when the sap can be gathered. The sap can be tapped as it rises in spring and fermented.
Birch is used to make the famous Birch besom , used by gardeners’ for sweeping up leaves in autumn, the birch making the head of the besom, its tendril like branches making it the ideal sweeping brush. The wood was used as timber for smoking hams, herrings, and the whiskey industry, and the branches for thatching on houses.
Folklore and herbalism credit different parts of the birch with a variety of medicinal properties. The leaves are diuretic and antiseptic, and an effective remedy for cystitis and other urinary tract infections. They were also used to dissolve kidney stones and relieve rheumatism and gout. The sap (as wine or cordial) similarly prevents kidney and bladder stones, treats rheumatism, and can be used to treat skin complaints. The bark is used externally for relief of muscle pain and is used by placing the internal part of the bark against the skin. Birch leaves are effective in lowering blood pressure, and an infusion of birch leaves will cool a fever and therefore aid the symptoms of the common cold.
"Beneath you birch with silver bark
And boughs so pendulous and fair,
The brook falls scattered down the rock:
and all is mossy there."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge