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, ecologists refer to birch as a pioneer species. In Celtic mythology, birch is also a tree of beginnings and came to symbolise renewal and purification. Birch or Beithe, 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). Samhain was the start of the Celtic year, when purification was important and people used bundles of birch twigs 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, and besoms were also the archetypal witches’ broomsticks. They used them in their shamanic flights, sometimes after the use of extracts of the fly agaric mushrooms found in birchwoods.
The birch also has strong fertility connections with the celebrations of Beltane. This was the second, summer, half of the Celtic year (nowadays celebrated as May Day). People made Beltane fires in Scotland with 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 a symbol of spring. Love and fertility goddesses, such as the northern European Frigga and Freya, have strong associations with birch. Eostre (from whom we derive the word Easter) was the Anglo Saxon goddess of spring. She was celebrated around and through the birch tree between the spring equinox and Beltane. According to the medieval herbalist Culpeper, Venus (the planet and the goddess) rules over birch. In Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow bear a healthy calf.
The word birch comes from a Proto-Indo-Eurpean root word bhereg-, meaning “to shine, bright, white”. Beithe (pronounced ‘bey’) is the Gaelic word for birch. It is widespread in Highland place names such as Glen an Beithe in Argyll and Allt Beithe in Glen Affric. Birch figures in many anglicised place names, such as Birkenhead, Birkhall and Berkhamstead. It is more common in northern England and Scotland. It seems that Alfred Lord Tennyson popularised the adjective ‘silver’ in relation to birch. When the poet S.T. Coleridge called it the ‘Lady of the Woods’, he may have been drawing on an existing folk term for the tree.
The uses of birch are many and varied. The wood is tough, heavy and straight grained, making it suitable for handles and toys and good for turning. It was used to make hard wearing bobbins, spools and reels for the cotton industry. Babies’ cradles were often made of birch wood, drawing on the 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.” He then listed 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. People used the bark for tanning leather, and sometimes, when dried and twisted into a rope, instead of candles. The spray was used for thatching houses and also for sleeping on when heather was 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 a remedy for cystitis and other urinary tract infections. The leaves and sap were also used to treat kidney stones, rheumatism and gout. The sap was recommended for skin complaints and 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
- Darwin, T. (1996) The Scots Herbal: the plant lore of Scotland. Mercat Press.
- Fife H. (1994) Warriors and Guardians: native highland trees. Argyll Publishing.
- Frazer, J. (1993) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Wordsworth.
- Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson: London.
- Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
- Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
- https://www.etymonline.com/word/*bhereg-?ref=etymonline_crossreference (Accessed December 2020)