Folklore of Birch
In this article we will explore the folklore, history and ecology of the birch tree.
For a more detailed exploration visit the Tree Folklore Course and help support valuable Conservation work.
Our ancestors were probably more interested in the uses of trees and what their natural roles reflected and added to their world rather than their classification. The way in which folklore informs the more scientific and practical research of more modern times continues to fascinate me.
As late as the 1950s our scientific identification books were punctuated with poems, and the romanticism of plants was not yet admonished by the scrutiny of cold mechanical conservation movements or science.
It seemed after the ‘hippy’ era of the 60s and 70s the conservation movement wished to divorce itself from the veneration of nature in order to take itself more seriously when challenged by economic reasoning.
However, when the planting of conifers in ancient woodland destroyed valuable habitats as well as making little financial contribution to the economy, it became apparent that science, conservation and the veneration of nature can all grow hand in hand and even make financial sense.
Often the considerations of tradition and the welfare of individual species and habitats go hand in hand with a more viable and effective land use. The Forestry Commission has long-since reviewed its mission to create home-grown timber at the detriment of the very woodlands that provide it.
So let us explore the Birch now through the eyes of our ancestors and see what we can learn.
Originally knowledge was remembered orally as we have already explored in the form of story and poetry. It is likely these poems and stories were remembered and re-remembered at seasonal gatherings throughout the year. Skills were learnt from generation to generation and transmitted by word of mouth as the most effective way of practice.
Probably every child knew the properties of Birch for instance from rhymes, songs or stories.
In a log-burning rhyme it is stated:
‘Birch logs will burn too fast, chestnut scarce at all.’
In an old Irish story a deeper meaning is given to the burning of Birch as we enter the world of metaphor, poetry and more subtle understandings:
‘The birch as well if he be layed low, promises abiding fortune.
Burn up most surely and certainly the stalks that bear the constant pods.’
The above verse is from an old Irish tale and is uttered from the leprachaun Iubdan who speaks of the importance of knowing which trees to burn. These snippets of lore demonstrate both an intimate and respectful relationship with trees based on an understanding that we are dependent on each individual species for different reasons.
Characteristics of Birch
‘O Birch small and blessed thou melodious proud one,
Delightful each intertwining branch on the top of thee crown.’
Frenzy of Mad Sweeney 1200 Irish texts society.
‘The birch in its great beauty was delayed donning his armour,
Thou not out of cowardice but rather from its greatness...’
Cad Goddeu (Battle of the Trees) Book of Taliesin 14th-century
We now enter the world where the trees are wise old sages that can guide us through life. Their language is the deep silence and their form and movement are the expression of who they are and what they represent to us, whether it is the beauty of the spring Birch grove, the Willow bending and flowing with the waters of life or the solid old Oak giving life and protection to all that shelter under it.
The first extract above is from a poem which conveys a love of these sacred forms, in this case attributed to Suibhne Geilt, a ‘file’, an Irish vision poet who has immersed himself in the lore of the forest. The second extract is from a fourteenth century Welsh manuscript attributed to the famous Welsh bard Taliesin.
We hear in many stories of archetypal heroes and shamanic figures who finish life under the boughs of the trees obtaining the fruition of great knowledge from a well-lived life .
Gentle strength and fond love.
The Birch in folklore represents a fond love as well as being the tree of birth, initiation and gentle strength. Imagine yourself in the Birch grove allowing the flow of feelings and creative thought to arise. You see trees of silver bark and black branches, with dainty catkins and slender branches, and yet they grow in the harshest conditions and are the first to colonise. *n.b. It is important to acknowledge a tree like the Oak may well colonise a given area first but is slower growing and therefore not noticed in the early stages.
In the spring the leaves unfurl in a delicate bright green and its sap when tapped is refreshing and healing. It is discovered the cylindrical trunks of what we now call ‘silver’ birch ( Tennyson was the first to describe her thus) are ideal to make cots for new- born babies and the stiffer branches of the downy birch ideal for brooms. The tiny twigs and its bark both contain volatile oil which is perfect to light a new fire. The bark can also water proof roofs and make containers. All of these practical qualities paint a picture of a gentle tree of new beginnings, strong and dynamic and yet graceful and short-lived like the sting of young love.
The Ogham name Beithe means being, or a Being, and the Birch grove in ancient stories and traditions is a place to connect with Other-worldly visitors. This connection is further enhanced as it is said to be the first Ogham inscription that was written to warn Lugh Lamfada that his wife was being taken to faerie land.
Birch being the first letter inscription also makes sense when we also realise that the first books may have been created and written on Birch bark. An example of this is preserved in the Bodleian library in the form of the Bakhshali manuscript dating from the 3rd or 4th century inscribed on 70 pieces of Birch bark.
The Birch is the tree of the North where the landscape is dramatic, windswept and icy cold. It decorates the great lochs of Scotland and its graceful gentle presence belies its hardy tenacious manner.
This quality may have helped our ancestors to reflect on the power of gentleness, the ability to have courage in a gentle yet persistent way. To start afresh or to begin a new venture or even a new way of being takes an unyielding strength, the strength of gentleness. For gentleness allows us the freedom to go forth at our own pace forgiving any mistakes we make.
This ‘gentle persistence’ is reflected in Birch due to the fact it was the first tree to appear after the last Ice Age, and still today has a continuous presence in the Scottish Lochs that has lasted over 9000 years.
Further south in England is a wood called ‘Birkland’ in Sherwood forest whose name implies the Vikings recognised it as a Birch wood over a thousand years ago.
Falling in love speaks of this gentleness, for it takes such courage to be tender and exposed, to trust, and allow another soul to touch your own. Diarmaid and Grainne shelter in the birch grove for protection from the jealous rage of Fionn McCuail; this is a beautiful tale of unconquerable love. As Diarmaid and Grainne fled across Ireland they built Dolmens at each place they spent the night. Dolmens are two massive lime stones parallel to each other over which is placed a third stone, the cap stone, creating a crude kind of shelter. Still today you can see the Dolmens all across Ireland which the locals still call the “bed of Diarmaid and Grainne”, bringing the passion of love into the landscape for eternity just like Birch.
These qualities are put into words in the poem below:
While leaves were green, I gave
Veneration to my sweetheart’s leafy bower.
Sweet it was awhile my love,
To live under the birch grove,
Sweeter still to clasp fondly
Hidden together in our woodland hide,
Strolling together by the sea shore,
Lingering together by the wood shore,
Planting birches together, goodly task!
Weaving the branches together,
Love-talking to my slender girl.
An innocent occupation for a girl-
To stroll the forest with her lover,
To mirror expressions, to smile together,
To live together kindly, drinking mead,
To repose together, to celebrate love,
To keep love’s secret cordon, covertly:
Truly, I have no need to tell you more.
Anon 14th Century. (Featured in The Book of Celtic Verse by John Matthews)
It is in the Birch grove Diarmaid and Grainne consolidate their love and begin their adventure together.
Ecology of Birch.
Mature Birch wood is often a light airy place supporting a myriad of many types of fungi (Beech wood is also great for fungus). It casts little shade and one can often observe redpolls and tits flitting and feeding amongst the canopy. These birds will use the seed as a food source and the leaves are a food source for the mottled umber caterpillar.
There are two classes of flora for Birch wood:
1. Blaeberry (Vaccinium mrytillus) rich Birchwood
2. Herb-rich Birchwoods with a grassy floor.
There are also two main species of Birch in Britain and a third species specialist to the Scottish Highlands:
1/ Betula pendula, Silver Birch
2/ Betula pubescens, Downy Birch.
3 / Betula nana, Dwarf Birch (specialist species of the Scottish Highlands).
The main two Birches were formally recognised in 1791 as mentioned in the introduction.
The Downy Birch is more associated with ancient woodlands, has stiffer twigs which do not droop (better for brooms) and leaves which have less ragged teeth and are hairy on the underside with a triangular base.
The Silver Birch is more associated with wood pasture and is more useful for timber due to a more cylindrical trunk. Its branches droop and its leaves have a straight base and are not hairy.
In Scotland and in other parts of Britain, Birch has many uses. Commercially it was used for reels and bobbins as well as the commonest fuel used for the ironworks in the weald. Locally its bark was used for roofing and making shampoo.
Birch sap collected in March can be used for kidney/bladder stones and rheumatic diseases as well as for a cleansing mouthwash and is excellent for the skin.
Birch bark can be used as diuretic, antiseptic and anaesthetic enabling nerve endings to lose sensations and relieve muscle pain.
Birch leaves help cystitis and are an excellent diuretic, mouthwash and can help dissolve kidney and bladder stones. They can also offer relief from rheumatism and gout.
Simply dry the leaves in brown paper bags and add a heaped teaspoon to a cup of boiled water to make an infusion. Please consult a qualified herbalist before using any herbal concoction as you may have an adverse reaction to plants you are not used to.
Our journey with Birch has come to an end or should I say a new beginning for us to explore even further. The next tree is the Rowan who will take us further into the Greenwood and teach us more about woodland history, ecology and folklore.
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