The Druid tree symbol for the Bards
– ‘The Goddess Tree’ – ‘The Lady of the Woods’, the Birch tree, Betula Pendula is the bringer of promise, light, and new beginnings.
An elegant native of British woods, of all Northern European countries and of North America, the birch is tall, up to sixty or so meters in height, with a slender pale trunk. It grows in clearings, preferring sunlight, but is not fussy about soil and is very hardy although not especially long-lived.
The birch is known as a ‘Pioneer Tree’ – meaning that it can restart the colonization of woodlands after long-term natural disasters.
Its soft green deciduous leaves have serrated edges and are held on thin branches which move and bow in the breeze. Its striking white, peeling bark gives it a faery-like beauty in all its seasons.
As the sap rises in early March, it’s possible to cut the bark, tap the trees and use the sweet liquid collected neat and cold as a water, or as the basis for a birch wine or beer. (Find out how to tap for birch sap in the bushcraft video below).
In early spring the small male flowers develop into long catkins (pictured right) and the female flowers grow into tiny cones (pictured left).
The wood isn’t particularly hard wearing but has been used down the centuries for all sorts of things. Its grain is very straight, true and good for turning. Handmade wooden toys delighted children, and when the cotton industry was at its height in Britain, birch was in great demand for use as reels and bobbins. In Scotland, it is burned as fuel in the whiskey distilleries.
Handles for brooms and tools are still made from birch wood, as are entire ‘besom’ brooms for the garden. It’s thin twigs were used for thatching, and when correctly burned, its resulting charcoal was used in gunpowder. More recently, birch twigs have found a use in packing the jumps at horse-racing venues.
The white bark is very unusual, thin and loose it can peel away from the tree like paper. Even the layers can be carefully peeled apart and it’s thought that the name Birch came either from the Sanskrit word ‘bhurga’, which literally meant ‘a tree whose bark is used for writing upon’, or from ‘bher’ – meaning ‘shining white’.
There are plenty of place names in the Britsh Isles with the prefix Berk or Birk for Birch and Biethe, the Gaelic name occurs quite often in Scotland.
The bark can produce an oil, known as Birch Tar or Oleum Rusci, which is used for tanning and in the specialist bookbinding industry. It contains betulin and a small amount of tannic acid, giving leather durability and protection from damp mold. The best Birch Tar Oil is still largely produced in the great birch forests of Russia.
Birch bark was, and is, used extensively by native groups in the northern countries, including America, China, and Russia. Famously, we think of the native Indian birch bark canoes, made more waterproof with the pitch from the pines, light and strong. Folded and strengthened it was also used to cover shelters and wigwams. Smaller strips were woven into many types of the basket and sometimes shoes.
In the folk medicine of many countries, birch simples were used as curative and preventative tonics as well as on the skin in ointments and oils. These were, and are, considered to have many healing properties.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly how they were prescribed, however, as there is virtually no mention of Betula or Birch in the works of the early herbalists.
The earliest I can find, is a mention in the writing and lists of ‘Herbs of New England’ by John Josselyn, 1672 who states that – ‘bark of birch is used by the Indians for bruised wounds and cuts …. boyled very tender and stamped betwixt two stones to a plaister, and the decoction thereof poured into a wound.’
From the 18th century, and until the advent of modern chemical medicines, the uses are easier to discover. Each part of the tree except the roots seems to have something to offer.
The astringent leaves can be crushed and made into a Birch Tea, which was used as a laxative and diuretic. This is still recommended by herbalists for help eliminating bacteria resulting in cystitis and infections of the urinary tract.
Both the tea obtained from leaves and the fresh drink made from the sap are high in Vitamin C.
The bark could be used externally to ease muscle pain, soaked in hot water and laid, tree side down, on the affected limbs. The oils taken from the bark are antiseptic and were used to heal skin wounds or infections such as herpes. The oil is also thought to be effective in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis.
Betulin, obtained form the bark of the white birch tree is currently under investigation for its potential in the treatment of skin cancers.
The sap – when made into a wine or beer is fermented with yeast. It can also be made into a cordial, or a hot spiced wine with the addition of honey, cloves, and lemon peel. This was given for prevention from, and relief of, kidney and gall-bladder stones, and for rheumatism and gout.
Sap can also be used fresh or commercially bottled as a refreshing, tonic drink, still popular in the Baltic countries. Best time to tap is in early March.
Birch Religion, Spirituality and Folklore
Element: Water Ruling Planet: Venus Gender: Feminine
Birch is the first of the tree symbols, for the first moon cycle in the Ogham Tree Calendar. Known by the celts as Beith (pronounced ‘bay’) it is the symbol of new beginnings, regeneration, hope, new dawns and the promise of what is to come.
The tree carries ancient wisdom and yet appears forever young.
The Druids were believed to have used the sap to make a spiritual cup for the celebration of the Spring Equinox.
Legend has it that it was ‘on a switch of birch’ that the first message was scratched out in Ogham symbols. Ogham signs were read vertically, from bottom to top.
Robert Graves states in “The White Goddess” that the message was a warning to the Irish Sun God Lugh about the fairies – the Sidhe, who were planning to kidnap his wife. The inscription consisted of seven ‘B’s’ and was interpreted to mean that his wife would be ‘seven times carried away from thee into fairyland unless the Birch be her overseer’.(The birch for beating that is!)
She, for the birch is most certainly female, goes by many names. The White Goddess, The Lady of the Woods, The Ribbon Tree, The Silver Maiden and The Birchen Maiden are all well known. On first sight, you would think her a gentle, shy tree – but she is the powerful symbol of continual hope and regeneration.
It’s easy to see the impact she must have made in pagan times, her white bark shining in torch and firelight or on full moon nights, her earliest of leaves rustling and shivering as the people’s hopes grew with the greening and the coming of spring.
Goddesses associated with Birch are the fertility goddesses of Northern Europe – Oestre, Frigga and Freya – and Venus, the Roman goddess of love, who rules over her. From Greece, we have Ariadne, from Ireland Brighid, and from Wales the owl goddess Blodenwedd.
Many of the major pre-Christian festivals feature the use of birch wood, bark, leaves or branches. At Imbolc (Candlemas) in February, the white bark is used to symbolize the return of light along with the candles.
At Beltane (May Day) the birch was the first choice as the tree to make the Maypole, cut at dawn to be decorated and danced around in old fertility rituals, later to be burned with ash logs at the Beltane fire.
At Samhain ( All Hallow’s Eve), some of the pagan new year festivities use birch to beat out the old or malign spirits from the hearth, as the symbol of returning light and rebirth.
At Samhain too (Hallowe’en) when the witches fly, they will get out their best birch wood besoms! Besom brooms are still often made with birch wood handles and twigs – an interesting choice for the witch, as the fly-agaric mushroom (the beautiful scarlet and white spotted fungus of all good fairy-tales), likes to grow amongst the base and roots of the birch tree. If carefully prepared by an expert and taken in tiny doses it’s known as a hallucinogenic flying drug. This shouldn’t be tried, though – it is also a fatal toxin!
In the famous Russian fairy tale, the witch Baba Yaga lives in a birch forest and sweeps away any tracks that she may leave with a silver birch twig broom
Birch twig brooms were also used in the ritual of ‘Beating the Bounds’. Members of a Parish would walk the ‘bounds’ of the village, beating various landmarks along the way to mark out the boundaries.
Birching can be used as a synonym for beating as objects were beaten with birch twigs, brooms or sticks to rid them of evil spirits. In times past, the birching was applied at various times to criminals, delinquents, people with no control over their actions, public school boys, and naughty children!
‘Most broom or besom heads were, and still are, made from birch or heather (ling). When fitted with a tail (or handle) their springy twigs have a unique ability to lift damp leaves from grass, brush fresh snow from a path, and when worn, to tease moss from a lawn.’
Birch Magic, Charms, and Beliefs
* Write a promise or a wish on birch bark with the charcoal-like tip of a burned birch twig. Keep it safe and secret and your wish will be fulfilled.
* To make a perfect, blonde-white, birchen wand, harvest the wood at the Birch Full Moon ( between Dec 24th and Jan 20th) or at dawn on the day of Imbolc (Feb 1st) or Candlemas (Feb 2nd) as the very first light of spring returns to warm the earth.
* To cool any violent passion, anger or over-reaction, sit alone for a while with your back against the birch trunk. If this isn’t possible, take something of birch in your hands and sit alone and quiet. Its innocent energy will channel your strong feelings into wise ways.
* Carry a birch twig or roundel cut from a branch as protection against malign influences.
* Burn a little birch bark or dried leaf on its own or as part of a purpose made incense blend at the start of any important new beginning or before a journey.
* A cradle, toy or decoration made from birch wood will protect the baby against bad spirits, and against faeries who are intent on turning the child into a changeling.
* Use a birchen wand to gain fresh perspectives on old ideas, and to get ideas started when the creative flow is blocked. They are powerful light bringers.
* Herd your cow with a birch stick and she will be fertile and birth healthy calves.