Birch / Beith

autumn birchBirch

Worldwide there are around 60 species of birch. Scotland has 2: downy (betula pubescens) and silver (betula pendula). Birch symbolises new beginnings and birch bark is great for lighting fires (much nicer than those smelly, white, petroleum blocks). If you want to conceive, making love under a birch tree is said to be the solution and to give your baby the best start in life, you should use a birch cradle! Ecologically, birch is a pioneer species, and was among the first trees to colonise after the ice-age. What better tree to start the alphabet!

In folklore the birch is known as the Lady of the Woods, and she spends the summer month wi oak as her Lord until the Holly takes over for the winter (she’s a bit of a two timing prima donna). Here’s my poem about her.

lady of the woods

a last patter of applause​ curtain falls
she stretches ​stands ​ sighs ​relaxes
her costume crumples on the floor

now is the time for a wine-drenched rest
get the stage clear the litter swept
let some air in freshen the set

chill ​ideas are budding for the coming season
she always dances in shimmering green
gold tassles this time or is that too bling?

tragedy again​ imagine the scene
the dawn of love​ she the queen​
wooed by the oak god from her spiny king

passion! passion!
a vast cast
a tumultuous dance of a pagan rite

and at its height
on midsummer night
the rivals will fight

she will beat her breast at the great oak pyre
retreat to a holly leaf bed and suffer
oh yes!​ how she will suffer

and the crowd will roar
and stamp
and call for more

next year
next year
this year

Mandy Haggith

Here is another poem about birch, by Colin McKenzie, who works at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.

Birch

not a shade, not a pest,

on a sunny glade a birch is best

not an eyesore, not a weed,

as a healer we must take heed

not a rot, but a boon,

give it a plot and lots of room

not a fly, not a blight

a birch grows high, and needs the light

not without feeling, not without strength

when it is cut I do lament

for a birch is not without a wooden heart

Colin McKenzie

Snippets of lore

Here are the snippets about birch, tweeted at dusk on 1 December 2011.

Today’s A-B-Tree tweets are about the first tree in the Gaelic tree alphabet – birch (beithe).

Birch symbolises new beginnings and birch bark is great for lighting fires (much nicer than those smelly, white, petroleum blocks).

Worldwide there are around 60 species of birch. Scotland has 2: downy (betula pubescens) and silver (betula pendula).

Make love under a birch tree at Beltane if you want to conceive.

Birch is a pioneer species, and was among the first trees to colonise after the ice-age.

The most famous (and my favourite) poem about birches is by Robert Frost.

This Seamus Heaney birch poem is a cracker too.

An old Welsh custom is to give a birch garland to the one you love to say ‘begin!’

Birch violence 1: People used birch to beat the marches (parish boundaries) to ward off evil, they beat the old year out with it at Hogmanay.

Birch violence 2: Children used to be thrashed or ‘birched’ at school.

Birch violence 3: People even used to try to beat bad spirits out of mentally ill people with birch.

Discerning witches prefer birch twigs for the brush part of their broomsticks. #ABTree

Birch is the sacred tree of Frigga, Norse goddess of love, sky and clouds, who spins rainbows.

Birch comes from Sanskrit bhurga – for writing on. Earliest records of writing on birch bark from Rome in 700 BC.

Birch bark can be used to make baskets, shoes, bags, rope, nets, paper, tanning and canoes.

Birch is the Lady of the Woods. In spring, oak takes over from holly as Lord of the Woods. So ritual spring fires combine birch and oak. #ABTree

In the Kalevala, a kantele, or harp, was made from a birch, and thus appreciation of beauty was brought into the world.

Birch alcohol 1: Birch sap (‘birch water’) tapped in spring makes delicious wine. So do the leaves.

Birch alcohol 2: Burning birch in a still gives whisky a good flavour.

Birch alcohol 3: Sap is a preservative and used as a source of industrial cleaning alcohol.

Birch alcohol 4: Lightfoot called birch sap wine ‘a generous and agreeable liquor and a happy substitute in the room of the poisonous whisky’.

More beginning magic: put birch leaves in a baby’s cot, or make its cradle from birch, to give it a good start in life.

Dreaming of birch is bad luck, or means that a fairy wants to talk to you!

Birch leaves yield yellow dye. Bark yields fawn dye

The scent of birch aids concentration.

Birch is a good fuel wood and excellent for charcoal.

Two useful fungi: tinder fungus (fomes fomentarius) grows on birch trunks and shitake mushrooms like birch logs.

Another fungus: Chanterelles grow among birch roots.

And another fungus: The twiggy birch clusters called Witch’s Brooms are caused by a fungus, genus taphrina.

Final fungus: Birch is a cosmic tree in Celtic shamanism because fly agaric likes it.

Birch can extract heavy metal toxins from soil.

Birchwood is good for furniture, harrow tines, bobbins, panelling, flooring and barrel staves.

Birch medicine 1: sap prevents kidney stones and cures acne.

Birch medicine 2: leaves good against cystitis, rheumatism and arthritis.

Birch medicine 3: Oil from birch bark good for excema.

Scandinavians and Russians flagellate in saunas with birch twigs.

Finally, three bits of birch folklore. To marry, just jump over a birch broom held across your doorway.

A barren cow herded with a birch twig will become fertile, and a healthy pregnant cow will have good calves.

If the birch leaves are the size of a mouse’s lug at Beltane, it’ll be a prosperous year.

2 thoughts on “Birch / Beith

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