When I was growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings. A good sapling was tall and lithe but bent easily. Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride. A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall. It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!
When I was 14, the forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged. For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone. And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings. They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around. For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine. Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest. The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years. Birches are the true forest healers.
These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination. This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees. Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!
Growth and Habit
Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely. In the Allegheny mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.
Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire. Because of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares. All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers. Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.
Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years). Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees. Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel. Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.
Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees. Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, but chaga mushrooms are also as well. They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees. Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.
Wood and Uses
Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark. This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides. In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe. They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.
All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities. You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees. Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a campfire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.
The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes. Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on. If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.
Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.
Recipes and Treats
In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).
Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring. And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out. LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio). Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!
Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea. The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on. Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like. It is a delicious wintergreen treat!
Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not. The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup. In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water. Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min. Cool, and strain. Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.” Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise. You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.
Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented). Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions. I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch. I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience. This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom. Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes. Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it. Let cool for 6-8 hours. When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top. (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked). Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover). The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.
White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources). however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).
Medicinal Qualities of the Birch
Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).
Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic. For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair. Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse. I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.
Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically. The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues. I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).
Birch’s Magical Qualities
Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet. It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent. In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.
According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties. Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius. Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck. Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).
Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense. However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania. Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:
HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.
Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.
Birch in World Mythology
The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter Sunday). Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons. They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest. The villagers visit the tree for two more days. On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.
In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia, birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power. They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting. When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta. Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”
Birch in Native American Mythology
In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch. The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun. He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming. He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands. He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people. How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors. I mark the spot for their councils. From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies. This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.
In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west. He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit. When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry. Thunderbird agrees. When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back. Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts. A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.
In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away. Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees. Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind. In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.
In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest. He also has beautiful white feathers. A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Woodworm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is. He sets it on fire. The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.
Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas
The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:
Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places. That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthen this connection.
Renewal & Purification. Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense. Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.
Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.
New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.