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 practiced 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.
“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