The Betula family has about 60 species all together worldwide. In general they thrive in northern temperate forests where they are one of the first trees to colonize disturbed or new land, and are what is called a pioneer species: paving the way for the rest of the forest to follow.
Birch has a long history of folkloric belief from many places. In Ireland, on Imbolc or Candlemas, Birch was (and still is) the wood used for the small wands that the 'Bride' or Brigid poppets made of straw were given. The twigs were also used to make a bed for this goddess-come-saint, St. Brigid, on her eve February 1st or 2nd. The words Brigid and Birch both stem from the same word, "bher(e)g" in Irish meaning "shining white". Birch saplings in general were seen to bring fruitfulness, and even to strike a person or an animal with one, especially a cow, would impart this fruitfulness to the victim.
This fruitfulness could not come about without its precursor: love. In Wales, wreathes of Birch were given as a token of love. Birch was also the wood of the lover's bower, and as a twig given as a gift between lovers, it symbolized constancy. This lends the tree well to its further associations in this realm as a feature of many of the Rites of Summer. Birch was even known to be used as the wood for the Maypole in England at Beltane. While in Germany, the leafy branches of the Birch would hide the identity of a "May King" to be guessed by neighbors.
Birch was not only associated with love, however, it was also believed to have strong protective and purification properties. In Ireland, twigs were placed above babies cradles to protect them in the Hebrides and in Wales, the wood was traditionally used to make the cradle itself.
Birch is ironically used both as the traditional twigs in a witch's broom, and also to drive away witches. These brooms were also used to sweep out the old year around the Winter Solstice, on the day after the longest night of the year, which I think ties in nicely with the ecological niche of this tree as a pioneer species, the renewing tree, the first tree to prepare the ground for the expanding forest.
Bundles of birch twigs were also used to "beat the bounds" around churches and send demons and unclean spirits a-running. In Ireland, the Fae were said to dislike Birch, so not only did it protect from demons, but meddling fairies as well. The bundle of birch twigs, known as a Ruten, is also carried by the infamous Krampus of the Alpine region as a means to discipline naughty children.
Maurice Bruce write in, "The Krampus in Styria",
"There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to 'bind the Devil' but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites."
He also goes on to say,
"Small gold-painted birch bundles are often presented by Krampus to each family. The birches are hung on a wall as a form of decoration and seem to be renewed each year particularly in those houses where the behaviour of the children merits the application of corporal correction."
According to Charles M. Skinner, Birch it was also believed to protect from lightening-strike, wounds, barrenness, gout, the evil eye and even caterpillars. In Germany, aside from the feral Krampus, the Birch is associated with the Wild Woman of the Woods as well. In folklore The Lady entices a shepherdess to leave her spinning and dance with her by dazzling her with her white gleaming attire. After three days of dancing she fills the poor woman's pockets with birch leaves which turn to gold as soon as she arrives back home. This story mirrors that of the Germanic goddesses Frau Holle and her lesser known cousin Perchta. They are known for their rewarding of hard workers, especially that of the industrious, poor young woman who diligently spins.
In Russia, Skinner mentions that the Birch was seen as a masculine entity and to summon him a simple ritual is done by cutting down Birch saplings and placing them point inwards in a circle. One then stands in the center and calls him forth to be granted favors by him, so long as you don't mind parting with your immortal soul in return. (Though I cannot find the source of this claim other than in Skinner's book, so please, if anyone knows more about this, I'd love to find more sources.)
Practically, Birch was used in Ireland for bark tanning leather, preserving fishing lines, and making brooms. The dense, straight grained wood made it useful for making everything from toys to bobbins, spools and reels for working with textiles. In Scotland it was used for agricultural tools, building material and for all manner of household things due to its abundance.
The Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta), which we have in abundance in Appalachia, was extracted to make Birch oil (also known as wintergreen oil), a flavoring agent you might recognize from old fashioned root and birch beers. Birch sap all on its own is a traditional drink in Northern Europe, Russia, and Northern China. In Russia, they not only drank the sap for pleasure, but also as a cure for consumption. It was also used as a lubricant, and the bark was used as a torch, as well as a cleanser in the form of steam in bath houses and saunas.
The sap can also be used to make birch syrup, but its ratio of sap to finished syrup is much higher than maple, making it an arduous process. You can also extract Birch tar at home to use as a traditional bonding agent, fuel, medicine, waterproofing, leather treatment and wood preserver. Birch wood can also be used to smoke foods like herring.
It makes a fine firewood and burns well even when damp due to its oil content. Ground Birch bark was fermented in sea water and used for seasoning the woolen, hemp or linen sails and hemp ropes of traditional Norwegian boats. The bark was also sometimes cordaged into wicks for burning like candles, and the twigs were used to make functional brooms, or besomes. Striking criminals with bundles of birch twigs also eventually became a form of corporeal punishment known as Birching. In legend, it was even said Christ himself was beaten with Birch rods.
Different First Nations people used Birch in a variety of ways, but the Birch bark was especially useful for containers, canoes, and many other uses. They used a variety of species for bark harvest, such as Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and a few others. Birch twigs and branches also made fine wattle for structure building, as well as thatch for roofing.
In Appalachia, Birches were used for much of the same as elsewhere. Birch oil was made from Black Birch, containers made from various species' bark, and carved wares and furniture made from the lumber. A special bioregional note, however, is that our Yellow Birch houses the mystical Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus), which is an amazing adaptogen that has active components for antioxidant, antitumoral, and antiviral activities and for improving human immunity against infection of pathogenic microbes. Please remember though, Chaga is a rare find, and a precious one at that. Always harvest from the forest wisely, or choose other immune supporting mushrooms likes Turkey tail and Reishi which are more common to sustainably wildcraft.
What can I make with it?
Practical: Kuksa cups, spoons, bowls, toys, brooms, and buildings. With the Paper Birch and other birch species that have bark which peels well, one can make a plethora of useful and beautiful objects, such as containers, paper, and shingles, but we will look at that in another post. Keep in mind when harvesting that when you remove the bark from a tree, you kill it.
Magical: Wands for magic concerned with love, protection, purification, The Woman of the Woods, and new beginnings. Also stangs, staffs, and besomes for the Rites of Summer, as well as small, detailed ritual carvings or jewelry.
Bruce, Maurice. “The Krampus in Styria”. Folklore 69.1 (1958): 45–47. Web...
Coitir, Niall Mac, and Grania Langrishe. Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore. Cork: Collins, 2003. Print.
Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
Kendall, Paul. "Birch." Mythology and Folklore . Trees for Life, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
Loudon, J. C. An Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs; Being the Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum Abridged: Containing the Hardy Trees and Shrubs of Britain Native and Foreign, Scientifically and Popularly Described; with Their Propagation, Culture, and Uses in the Arts; and with Engravings of Nearly All Species. Abridged from the Large Edition in Eight Volumes, and Adapted for the Use of Nurserymen, Gardeners, and Foresters. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842. Print.
Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber, 1998. Print.
Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants: In All Ages and All Climes. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939. Print.
Witching and Bitching in Western NC.
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