Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Graceful Birch

This time last year, a small accident derailed my day-to-day routine. Sometimes, we’re thick, and we don’t/can’t see the full path we’re heading on for what it really is. Sometimes, the universe has to kick us in the face before we can see it and alter our course. Growth, transformation, and evolution are at the heart of my spiritual practice, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that growth comes, even after a painful transition, if we can stay open to accepting it.
I spent the day after the accident going through old family mementos with my dad. In the box, among the cache of old camping photos, taken by my Great-Grandma Minnie, we found a piece of white birch bark, a lone keepsake among photos, pamphlets, brochures, recipes and news articles.
That find meant a great deal to me. Birch is my favorite tree. In my parent’s kitchen, I held a piece of the past, a pale piece of birch placed among collected bits, treasured enough to keep forever. Did my Great-Grandma Minnie pick it up? Was it a gift to her from one of her children on a family adventure? Was it something she loved instinctively, too?
That bark now sits among my treasures. Birch is a tree that we have attributed symbols of growth to over history. The Norse rune Beorc, named for the tree, means growth, and is one of my personal talismans. I have been meditating this last year on birch, pushing forward for my own healing and renewal, moving towards wellness.
Against the dark grey of seasonal winter, the white birch stands out in the forest like bones jutting from the earth. As they age, their bark splits and peels and curls away in beautiful rippling edges. If you have never seen an elderly birch tree, you haven’t experienced the full truth of their wisdom; that what is no longer needed gets sloughed away. I have seen birch trees bowed down by ice after storms. They bend but they bend under great weight. They bend but they do not break. Many old folktales say the birch was cut by an angry old man because it refused his command to break and fall.
I have leaned against a young sapling, and rested my weight against it. After a time, I could feel the slightest shudder of vibration, as if the tree beneath me were breathing. And I knew that ripple was the wind swaying the tree top, resonating down the trunk and against my chest. The tree folk have a rhythm of breath all their own and a stillness that I try to carry with me.
Peace, gratitude, growth, adaptation, evolution… these are the qualities I learn from the birch tree, a deciduous member of the Betulaceae family, native to temperate and boreal climates in the Northern Hemisphere. As one of the first trees to seed and spread after the receding ice glaciers, botanists refer to it as a pioneer species. It is often one of the first trees to seed and grow after disastrous fires, creating essentially pure stands of birch. After a generation, they are usually replaced by more shade-tolerant conifers or stronger hardwoods, and when they die, their bodies and fallen leaves will further nourish the recovering soil. There are so many birches in Umea, Sweden that it is called “The City of the Birches.” A devastating fire swept the city in June of 1888, and left 2,300 of the 3,000 inhabitants homeless. When the city was rebuilt, the buildings were placed further apart and silver birches were planted widely between buildings, so they might halt the spread of fire in the future.
There are sixty species of birch and they can grow up to 80 feet tall. Properly cultivated, they can live up to 140 years, though silver birches in the wild rarely live past 80 years. Currently, the oldest birch tree in the world is 101 years old in Wageningen, Netherlands. Each birch tree is male and female, carrying both the slender, male, drooping catkins, and the short, conical, wooly clusters of female flowers.
Birch bark is marked with long horizontal lenticels, making it quite distinctive and easily identified. The lightweight, chalky white outer bark is easily separated into thin strips. The bark is strong and flexible, as well as water-resistant, and can be bent, cut, and sewn, like cardboard. Full of resinous oil, birch bark is slow to decay, lending to it an air of indestructibility. Removing bark from a living tree leaves a permanent black band on the trunk, which will not harm the tree as long as this band is undamaged. Still, bark should always be removed from fallen trees first.
Birch bark was used as material for canoes, wigwams and other shelters, scrolls and writing paper, instruments, boxes and baskets, and even shoes and clothing by the indigenous peoples of North America, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. The water-resistant properties of it made it a valuable material in roofing. It is a good source of firewood, for whether it is frozen or freshly cut, it burns without spitting or popping. It even burns well when wet, because of the kind of and amount of oil it contains. In March, cuts can be made to the birch tree, from which thin sugary sap is collected, half as sweet as maple syrup. Moderate tapping will not harm the tree. Birch wine and other cordials are made from this syrup.

The word birch is said to derive from the Sanskrit word bhurga, meaning “tree whose bark is used to write upon.” It is also said to come from the Germanic birka with the Proto-Indo-European root bhereg, meaning “white, bright; to shine.” Where these language roads may overlap, I cannot say. The Germanic rune berkanan, or beorc, is named for the birch tree, which is known by many folk-names: Beithe, Bereza, Berke, Beth, and Bouleau. The tree has a prominent position in the history of Anglo-Saxon place names, like Birkenhead, Birkhall, and Berkhamstead, showing most commonly in Northern England and Scotland. The Gaelic word for birch, beithe, pronounced “bey”, is seen in Highland place names like Glen an Beithe in Argyll, Beith in Sutherland, and Loch a Bhealaich Bheithe in Inverness-shire.
            The birch is one of the earliest trees to bloom in the spring and as such, it embodies the energies of growth in general, but especially regrowth after destruction. To the Celtic people, birch represented inception and new beginnings. Twigs were used in May, at Beltane celebrations, to light bonfires marking the beginning of the new season. In October, at the festivals of Samhain, bundles of twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. At Winter Solstice in December, birch brooms were used to sweep the house the morning after the longest night of the year, clearing the way for renewal. Birch was often used as a Yule log.
            Beltane bonfires in Scotland were made of a combination of birch and oak. Birch was often chosen as the maypole tree for the festivities, and was sometimes used as a living maypole. Scottish Highland folklore says that a barren cow driven with a birch stick will become fertile; a pregnant cow will birth a healthy calf.
            Birch was the Germanic tree of wisdom, and the holy tree of Frigga, the Mother goddess and wife of Odin. Frigga is associated with the Welsh owl goddess Blodeuwedd, and the barn owl is a familiar of hers. Birch, used in rune divination, known as beorc or bfarkan, is associated with Freya, the lady of the forest and goddess of fecundity. It is associated with the planet Venus, and all goddesses of love, like Freya and Frigga.
Birches were used to ward off evil spirits. Birch twigs were used to beat the energy left behind by witches out of the house. Twigs can also be used to gently strike a person or animal possessed by an evil spirit and drive it from them in exorcism. In its association with the dead and the Underworld a folk ballad from the 17th century, “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” tells of a woman’s sons returning from the Underworld in clothing made of birch: “It fell about the Martinmas,/ When nights are lang and mirk,/ The carline wife’s three sons came hame,/ And their hats were o’ the birk./ It neither grew in skye nor ditch,/ Nor yet in ony sheugh;/ But at the gates o’ Paradise/ That birk grew fair enough.”
            In Siberia, the Birch tree was considered to be the axis of the world. Siberian shamans hung other dead shamans in birch trees. They left the dead to the elements. The dead spirit would use the birch as a doorway to spirit world, and as a means of return when he was petitioned for guidance. Among the Eskimo of the Gold Coast, shamanic teachers climb birch trees, circling the trunk nine times to represent his ascent into Upper World. His students will each do so in turn.
In some Ojibwe communities, birch bark was a sacred gift from Wenabozho, a cultural hero and they buried their dead in bark wrappings. Birch bark rolls depict the symbols of the Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa and are a treasured possession According to other Ojibwe folklore, lightning won’t strike birch trees.

Birch is used in furniture making. The wood is heavy, tough and contains a straight grain that makes it perfect for handles and toys. It was used to manufacture anything that required turning, like hardwearing bobbins, spools, reels, and herring-barrel staves. In the country, lighter birch twigs were used as thatching, to make brooms, and for wattle-fencing. Baby cradles were traditionally made from birch, as a means of protection from fey folk.
J.C. Loudon wrote in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, in 1842, that the Highlanders of Scotland used birch for much of their household and farming production, and general building materials. They used the branches as fuel in distilling whiskey. The Scottish used the spray to smoke ham and herring, which was preferred against any other kind of wood. The bark was used to tan leather, and was sometimes twisted in rope to be used in the place of candles. The spray was used for thatching and dried in the summer with the leaves to be used as a bed when heath was scarce.

The leaves of the birch are both an antiseptic and a diuretic. The infusion, having a bitter taste, has been used to treat gout, rheumatism, dropsy, and mild arthritic pain, as well as urinary tract infections, specifically cystitis. Taken over a few weeks, birch leaf tea will detoxify and stimulate the gall bladder, kidneys, and liver. Cooled, it can be massaged into the scalp to accelerate hair growth.
Native Americans used bark tea for fevers, stomachache, and lung ailments. Birch bark and twigs have similar properties to Wintergreen and can be drunk to aid purification of the blood. It’s a good body tonic, helping the bowels with conditions of diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera infantum. In history, it was used to expel worms from the body. Taken internally, the tea can be just as helpful for skin ailments like warts, boils, and sores, as well as when it is used as an external wash for skin eruptions. Cover the bark in water, boil until it softens and mash it with a hammer or pestle into a paste. This can be used to apply to sores, abrasions, and inflammations on a daily basis until healed.
            The salicylates in the bark and the essential oil ease sore muscles and joint pain when applied externally. The oil soothes irritated joints and actively decreases the inflammation. Massage it in to relieve stiffness and reduce pain. The oil has a high concentration of acid that repels mosquitoes and gnats. Mix 25 drops with 4 ounces of water in a spray bottle for a natural bug repellent. The inner bark is bitter and astringent and has been used as a remedy for intermittent fevers.
            Birch trees have intentionally been planted in waste areas, like old mines and toxic ground. The birch is believed to purify the ground in the same way it can purify the body, paving the way for nature to return. When the birch dies, it’s own body will nourish and cleanse the soil beneath it. I don’t know if that is true or not, that the birch can cleanse a soil so quickly, but I do believe the birch to be a great Way-Maker. In my own life, it has seen me through new growth and challenges. In meditation with birch, I have learned to bend with change instead of breaking beneath it.

  • It takes 25 years for a silver birch to bear fruit.
  • The name Macbeth is derived from the word birch.
  • Beithe is first in the Ogham, an Irish tree alphabet.
  • The tree was dedicated to Brigit, the goddess of inspiration, healing, and blacksmithing.
  • Gardeners used birch brooms to purify their space.
  • Birch was the personal sacred tree of the Norse god Thor.
  • In Germany, young men would place decorated birch trees in front of the houses of their beloveds on May 1, to reveal their feelings.
  • In some Scandinavian countries, the leafing of the birch tree marked the start of the agricultural year.
  • In Sweden and Lapland, birch sap is used in place of sugar.
  • The Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, was celebrated from Spring Equinox to Beltane with birch trees.
  • In Wales, wreaths of birch were given as love tokens.
  • Birch boughs were placed over cradles and carriages to protect infants from the glamour of the Little People.
  • On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26/27, Robin Red Breast used a birch rod to slay the wren in a gorse bush.
  • Many countries make birch wine and beer.
  • Cattle and deer do not like the taste of birch bark, so they leave birch trees alone.
  • In folklore, tying a red ribbon around the stem or branch of a birch tree would ward off the evil eye. 
  • Birch was used for protection against lightning. 
  • The Paper White Birch is the New Hampshire state tree.
  • The Lieschi, or Lesovik, a Slavic Spirit of the Forest, lives in the top of birch trees. He wears a long green beard and casts no shadow, changing his size at will. He hibernates from October until the spring.
  • In Russia, the birch was worshipped as a goddess during Green Week in early June.
  • Russians plant birches outside the home to bring protection.
  • Modern Siberian shamans use birch for the center pole of their yurt, with nine notches carved on it.
  • The thin bark was widely used as writing paper in Northern India. The first written version of the Vedas, ancient Indian wisdom, were written on birch bark.
  • The sap is fermented to make birch wine.
  • Birch bark can be ground down and fermented in sea water to season the sails of Norwegian boats, made of wool, hemp or linen.
  • Baltic birch is sought-after for making speaker cabinets, due to the peaks of high and low resonances.
  • It is sometimes used for acoustic guitars and mallets in keyboard percussion.
  • Books bound in Russian leather, tanned with Oil of Birch Tar, are unlikely to mold. Asphyxiating gases have been sourced from birch wood.
  • Charcoal of birch is used for gunpowder.
  • Many indigenous people linked the birch with the fly agaric mushroom, amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom used for spirit journeys, because it seemed to prefer growing beneath birch trees.
  • In saunas, birch twigs are used to ‘beat’ the body to stimulate circulation.
  • A tea of the twigs and bark aids in ridding the mouth of canker sores.
  • Softened birch has been used to form casts for broken arms.
  • The inner bark of the birch can be dried and ground into flour for bread or cut into strips and boiled like noodles in stews. 


  1. I absolutely loved this blog on the birch. It's beautiful and inspiring. Thank you!

  2. Sarah,
    After watching the movie "Train" last evening (Burt Lancaster & Paul Scofield) I had this dream image: an old Birch (paperifera) with all its limbs above where the trunk branched were either broken off or hanging only slightly attached. The axis of our world destroyed by war! I thought this might interest you.

  3. Sarah,
    Last evening I watched the "Train" with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield. Then during the night I had this dream image: a large and quite old birch (paperifera) with all its limbs broken or hanging and partially attached just above where the large trunk branched. A war image. The axis of the world destroyed or significantly wounded.
    I thought this might interest you. Nick


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