Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Folk and Magic Use Of The Birch

"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

When the huge glaciers of the last ice age receded,
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.

Similarly in early Celtic mythology, the birch came to
symbolise renewal and purification. Beithe, the Celtic birch,
is the first tree of the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet.
It 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.

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.

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 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." The sap can be tapped as it rises in
spring and fermented to make birch wine, a process still
practised in the Highlands today. Of old, the Druids made
the sap into a cordial to celebrate the spring equinox.

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 said to ease
muscle pain if applied externally.
Paul Kendall

* Brooms handles and sweeps made of wood and twigs especially
for new year cleaning
* Russians attached a red ribbon to a branch to fight the
* Norse Farmers connected it to Thor and attached it to a
house to avoid lightning.
* Scandinavians flail themselves in saunas with birch twigs.
* Scandinavians wrapped the bark around their legs to keep
out the wet - gaiters.
* Siberian shamans used Magic Mushrooms (Amanita muscaria)
to climb the skies.
* Dutch boys lashed young women to make them fertile. (eh?)
* Anglo-Saxons beat criminals and children with switches of
* Irish often used it for making doo-dads and writing Ogham.
* In Pembrokeshire (Wales) girls would give their lovers
a twig of birch as a sign of encouragement; if they were
not so lucky they often got a hazel twig.
* The Celts made cradles of Birch for protecting the babies
* Native Americans used the bark was used for buckets, canoes,
and as a sugary drink.

* The pitch was made into a glue for fixing flint arrow and
spear heads onto shafts.
* Parchment or rune sticks of a Birch struck by lightning can
be gathered during the moon.
* The inner bark contains methyl salicylate, which is a
counter-irritant and analgesic.
* Bark infusions for rheumatism.
* Poultices of leave, catkins for skin problems
* Lotions from bark's oil
* Tea for mouth sores, kidney stones and provide a diuretic
* Young leaves and shoots for laxatives
* Small amulets of Birch will protect you from Faery and
lunatics (useful!)
* Wine can be made from the rising sap in March
* Birch beer brewed from the branches.
* Thatchers and wattlers used its branches
* Birch charcoal often used for gun-powder and indigestion
* The timber is tough, stiff and fairly easily worked and is
used in joinery,carving, cabinet and furniture making, clogs,
spools and bobbins, plywood and flooring
* The bark, when dried and twisted into a rope, is used for

Folklore: The birch is considered a feminine tree and is often
associated with the rusalki and wily. The spirits of dead
ancestors often take residence within the birch. The great
world tree, according to many Slavic traditions, is a white

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