Through the ages, trees have been considered sacred and magical. An almost universal symbol – the tree of life has roots reaching the waters of the underworld and branches reaching to the heavens. Going back to a time when trees were thought to be the home of the gods and goddesses, the rustling of the leaves were thought to be messages from other worlds. Trees not only have mythology, legend, superstition, and spiritual meaning, but they have many uses…a true gift from Mother Earth.
The Paper White Birch tree is the New Hampshire state tree growing up to 70ft high and 3 feet in diameter. The birch tree is both male and female and carries attributes of both as a single tree will have both male and female flowers. Its bark is found in chalky white outer layers freely separating into thin strips. My earliest memories as a young girl, include making centerpieces for the dinner table that included nature treasures I found in the woods around Lake Winnipesaukee. It almost always included birch bark. This bark fascinated me – the color, the texture, the smell, and the curling papery nature of it. To this day, the birch is one of my favorite trees.
The Birch: Culture, Myth and Symbol:
Symbolically the birch stands for fertility and new life – renewal.
In Norse mythology the birch is associated with Freya the lady of the forest. Birch twigs were used to drive away evil spirits. In the Swedish city of Umea the birch tree is planted all over the city and calls itself “The City of the Birches”. These birches were planted after the city was ravaged by fires nearly burning to the ground but is thought to have been stopped by some birches that halted the spread of the fire. Ground birch bark, fermented in sea water, was used for seasoning the woolen, hemp or linen sails and hemp rope of traditional Norwegian boats.
In parts of Germany, young men erect decorated birch trees in front of the houses of their love interests on the night of May 1st, to show their feelings. Birch twigs were used by the Celts to light the Beltane, May 1st, fires and traditionally couples paired off for love making in the birch forest. For the Winter Solstice, December 21st, birch brooms were used to sweep the morning after the longest night of the year to “brush out the old” bringing renewal.
In Northern India, the birch holds great historical significance where the thin bark coming off in winter was extensively used as writing paper. Birch paper is exceptionally durable and was the material used for many ancient Indian texts. The first version of the ancient indian wisdom tradition, Vedas were written on birch bark.
Many Native Americans used the bark for the construction of strong, waterproof but lightweight canoes, bowls and wigwams. This bark is light weight, flexible, and the easy to strip from fallen trees. The Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa Indians, use the birch bark rolls to depict the symbols of their society and are a most treasured item of the initiate.
The birch tree is considered a national tree of Russia where it used to be worshipped as a goddess during the Green Week in early June. Russians plant birches outside the home to bring protection.
In the past, Siberian Shamanism would hang the corpses of their dead shamans up in birch trees and leave them to the elements and the wildlife. His spirit would use the Birch as the gateway to the spirit world, but could also use it anytime as a way to come back when called or needed. Today the Siberian Shaman uses the full spiritual strength of the birch by using it for the center pole of the yurt. Nine notches are carved into it before it is erected. Then in a trance the shaman climbs to the top of the pole while his/her spirit journeys to the upper or lower world.
Among the Gold Eskimos the climbing of a birch tree marks the high point of an apprentice’s initiation ceremony. The shamanic teacher climbs a birch tree and circles its trunk nine times. As he climbs, the shaman’s soul ascends to the Upper World. Each circling of the Tree marks the passing of the shaman from one world to another. The shaman then returns and the apprentice and other initiates climb the Tree in turn.
The indigenous peoples of North America, Russia, Siberia, northern Europe and Scandinavia have used the durable bark for many things such as boats, canoes, wigwams and yurts and all sorts of containers, writing paper and even shoes.
Listen closely. Listen for the whispers of renewal in the midst of the birch groves within your soul. The birch Dryad’s are speaking to you.
The birch bark is practically imperishable, due to the resinous oil it contains. This bark does not rot – lending the tree to an aura of indestructibility. The bark is quite strong and flexible. Removal of the bark does not kill the tree but will leave a permanent black band. Always get bark from fallen trees first.
Birch used as firewood burns well, without popping, even when frozen and freshly hewn. The bark will burn very well even when wet because of the oils it contains. With care, it can be split into very thin sheets that will ignite from even the smallest of sparks.
Baltic Birch has a natural resonance that peaks in the high and low frequencies. For this reason it is among the most sought after wood in the manufacture of speaker cabinets. Birch wood is sometimes used as a tonewood for semi-acoustic and acoustic guitar bodies Birch wood is also a common material used in mallets for keyboard percussion.
Natural Healing and Edibility
Birch Twigs: Used in saunas, birch twigs are used to ‘beat’ the body to stimulate circulation. The fragrant twigs of the Silver Birch are also used in saunas to relax the muscles. Similarly, birch bows can be spread on a sweat lodge floor.
Birch Leaves: Tea from the young leaves stimulate the gall bladder, kidneys and liver and can be drunk over three weeks as a spring detox. Leaves are collected in April or May and dried then brewed into a tea. This tea can also be cooled and used as a hair rinse massaging it into the scalp after shampooing to accelerate hair growth. The young spring leaves also provide a healthy addition to fresh salads.
Birch bark: Make a birch bark paste to treat some skin conditions. Use sufficient water to cover the bark. Boil until soft and then mash with a kitchen hammer or pestle. Apply the paste to sores, abrasions and inflammations. Repeat daily and watch for improvement in the skin within a week. Birch bark can also be soaked until moist in water, and then formed into a cast for a broken arm.
Birch Oil: Soothe sore muscles by rubbing them with birch oil. Massage with the oil to reduce pain and stiffness. (See video link below on how to render this oil.) Birch bark oil can also be used to repel insects. It has a high concentration of acid that wards off mosquitoes, gnats and other bugs. Combine 25 drops with 4 ounces of water. Use a spray pump bottle to distribute the mixture evenly over exposed skin.
Inner bark: The inner bark of the birch can be dried and ground into a flour for bread or cut into strips and boiled like noodles in stews. It can also be eaten raw. From the black or yellow birches, a tasty tea delicately spicy with taste of wintergreen can be made. Any of the types of birches make a good tea even if using only small twigs.
Birch juice: Extracted by tapping into the standing trees, the sap can be drunk right out of the tree in springtime or boil down into a syrup or made into a wine. It is half as sweet as maple syrup.
We are gifted from Mother Earth with the gentle grace of the birch trees.
Flower and Tree Magic, Richard Webster. Copyright 2008- Llewellyn
Trees & Shrubs of Northern New England. Copyright 1975-Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Bradford Angier. Copyright 2008 – Stackpole Books.
The Meaning of Trees, Fred Hageneder. Copyright 2005-Duncan Baird