"the Graceful Lady of the Woods" Introducing the Silver Birch
Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.
On a recent foray into the environs of west Lancashire I came upon the eye catching trunks and elegant form of the silver birch. The tree belongs to the family Betulaceae which includes some familiar species such as the common alder, Alnus glutinosa, Hazel Corylus avellana and the common hornbeams, Carpinus betula.
The silver birch as acquired a name that suits it very well -"the graceful lady of the woods", it has a beautiful shining body adorned with petite green foliage, giving a vision of elegance. Scandinavian mythology has the birch representing the spirit of Freya -THE MOTHER GODDESS.
Long before the advent of electricity this tree with its shining bark stood out like a beacon in the moonlit forests, the light in a avast darkness regarded as a welcoming sight and a comforting friend , among the dark black trunks of their fellow denizens.
Cradles made out of birch wood was said to protect babies from the influences of misdeeds. In days long ago the belief that goblins,elves and fairies was rife among the country folk. The birch cradle was used to deter goblins and others of their ilk from taking the baby and replacing it with one of their own. Birch broom were employed to sweep out the old year, thus making room for the new one.
Birch is also said to be the symbol of unconditional love. It has been used to lift the spirits of those that are depressed. The Anglo Saxon Goddess of the spring and fertility,Eostre was celebrated through the birch.
Basic Biology of the Silver Birch.
Betula pendula lives with us for around 80-100years, rarely may achieve the age of 120 years. It is another tree often chosen to brighten up parks and gardens and to line streets, where they grow to the height of 15-25 metres. Some specimens under exceptional circumstances have been recorded at the height of 30 metres. The airy slender crown with its drooping branchlets give rise to the species name of pendula.
The bark is of a white colour often with somewhat diamond shaped markings with larger areas of dark near to the base. The bark often separates into thin papery plates. Birch bark is practicably imperishable due to the resinous oil which it contains. The rolled up bark, due to this resinous oil was once employed with great benefit as torches. Even small amounts of this papery bark stripped from the tree is a useful product for lighting fires, as many who camp out in the woods will testify.
These layers of bark are so durable that they were considered to be waterproof. So much so as to be utilised in the making of buckets; Other products included baskets , bags , bottles and many more items. The bark made durable skins for canoes which the native American Indians used to their advantage. It has been employed as a roofing material in some areas and also for a parchment for writing upon. Indeed the name birch is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit- bhurga indicating a tree whose bark can be written upon.The whiteness in the bark is due to tiny grains of betulin a crystallized pigment.
The root system is shallow and the tree may suffer in times of drought. It is one of the first trees to get established on barren land . The seedlings soon germinate and the spread continues. However, the birch often gives way to other more dominant trees after it has fertilised the ground around it with several years leaf litter. The dominant species not allowing enough light for the seedlings of birch to develop. Birch require a deep fertile soil to get established.
The young shoots are shiny and of a reddish colour with many glands that appear wart-like.
The foliage is triangular and toothed. They are broadest at their base tapering to a pointed tip. They are 4-7cm long. They are arranged alternately with stalks 2-3cm long and hairless.
The flowers are in the form of catkins male and female separate on the same tree. The male catkins are yellow brown and are cylindrical but linear about 8-10cm long, while those of the female flowers are stalked slender green catkins 2-3cm long. Flowering occurs in April and May
Birch wood is soft and workable but unlike the durable bark the wood is prone to rot and is not used in building projects. However, it is used to make broom handles, cups and bowls,cotton bobbins, clogs, toys and other items such as kitchen utensils. It must not be confused with a very similar species the downy birch which tends to have hairy shoots and leaf stalks , hence its common name. The branches are less prone to droop in habit. However, the two trees often hybridize making identification even more trickier.
Young bark and sapling
Medicinal and Culinary Uses.
Medicinally the birch has been employed in a variety of ways. The leaves were used as a tonic laxative. They have been infused as "birch tea" that was said to alleviate the symptoms of gout, rheumatism and water retention. This infusion was also regarded as being efficient in dissolving the kidney stone. A decoction of the leaves was used in the form of a lotion which was regarded as a good healer of skin eruptions. The leaves have been proved to have an antibacterial property. The tea is also claimed to lower the cholesterol.
In days gone by a hole was drilled into the tree during early spring as the sap was rising. A container was placed beneath the said drill hole in order to catch the clear watery sap, which emerged slowly over a period of time. This sap makes a delicious drink and is also excellent for skin complexion. However, here in the U.K. this drilling of birch trees is now illegal. The only birch trees that may be drilled is the ones that are designated to be felled. Even so you still require the permission of the land owner before you commence.
The inner bark was used in the form of a decoction to treat intermittent fevers. The young leaves are also a great addition to spring salads. Birch water has a good reputation as an external tonic for the scalp.
In his book the "SPIRIT OF TREES" Fred Hageneder tells of how, when he was a young boy, he was feeling despondent. He sat with his back to a birch tree. He writes--" My eyes followed the trunk into the sky. At the same time my soul was lifted too. I tilted my head back and sat with my spine following the gentle movement of the tree swaying in the breeze. As I did so a great sense of peace filled my soul and my mind was liberated from its emotional cage"
All in all the graceful lady of the woods is a beautiful tree which mankind should treat with the respect it has earned over the centuries.