With its papery, peeling bark and dark diamond-shaped markings, birch is very distinctive.
Birch needs a lot of light and its silvery showers of leaves flicker in the sunshine. The whiteness in its bark is due to the tiny grains of betulin, a crystal in the bark cells. Its dark purple twigs easily bend to the wind, and its leaves are small and triangular.
Birch is a pioneering tree, which means it is the first tree to grow on rocks, in sand or on moorland
Its shallow roots only need a few minerals which come from the many fungi and lichens that grow around it. Although its wood is tough and bends easily, birch rots quickly once dead, which is good for insects such as beetle larvae that eat it, which in turn are important to the many birds living around the birch tree.
Birch bark is very durable, and has been used for thousands of years to make boats, canoes, roof tiles (called shingles), buckets and shoes.
It contains birch tar, which makes it burn easily. A Russian proverb says the Birch gives light (its bark is rolled for torches), calms screams (birch tar was smeared on cart wheels), heals (used as a cream on the body) and cleanses (its branches are used in saunas).
Tea can be made from the young birch leaves, and birch sap stimulates kidneys to help the metabolism clean the blood. The Ojibwa Native Americans used birch in sweat lodge cleansing ceremonies. Birch wood is used for bobbins, spools and reels, brooms, carving, haddock-smoking, firebeaters, and even witches broomsticks! (actually ‘witches broom’, which looks like nests hanging in birch trees. It is caused by a fungus and sparrows sometimes use them as nests.)
The antlered god Cernunnos ('great horned one'), is possibly best known from his depiction on the danish Gundestrup Cauldron
Here he appears holding a ram-headed snake in one hand, with wolf and stag to either side and, binding them all (including himself) is his ring, or torc, held in his right hand. Like the Green Man of Knowledge (and the greek Dionysus), Cernunnos is god of the wilds, and long associated with wells.
A shortened form of his name is Cerne (and, though disputed, possibly Herne the Hunter). At Cerne Abbas in Dorset, he is carved into the chalk hillside as a huge giant, both of the hunt (Hercules) and fertility (Zeus-like).
His club points upward to the remains of a stone circle (facing north-east and once of calendrical purpose), while from below him springs a 'silver well', a small river that indicates his fertility aspect. This combination is logical since as a month, Beithe includes the winter solstice (Dec 24 - Jan 21) and therefore symbolises renewal rites of fertility and wildness at the turning of the year.
The ancient holy well, once known as the 'silver well', was renamed St. Augustine's Well after the arrival of Christianity, and the lewdness of his obvious paganistic sexuality was 'conveniently' sanitised by the explanation that St Augustine is said to have leant on his staff while preaching at the site, which caused the well to spring forth. Apparently the good people of Cerne Abbas drove Augustine away, preferring their pagan past, but - the story goes - as their children were then all born with fishes' tails, they were persuaded to convert eventually! Unlike many pagan wells subsumed into Christian values, the springs are still flowing, so that the whole hillside contains the delight of the feminine energy balanced with the (more aggressive) prowess of the male god on his hill above.
It was also a very strong symbol of fertility and many festivities are associated with birch groves, especially at Beltane, when (not that long ago) marriage vows were lifted for the one day and customs such as the 'handfesting' gave pagan licence to youth for the day! In a Welsh poem:
Is it true, the girl that I love
that you do not desire the birch,
the strong growth of summer?
/be not a nun in spring,
ascetism is not as good as a bush...
come to the spreading birch
to the religion of the trees and the cuckoo
Because the church eventually outlawed such a custom, it was turned on its head and the birch tree itself was brought into the village, decorated colourfully and a spring festival held around it - and so the maypole first appeared in the thirteenth century.
Still concerned by the pagan element, the Church insisted that sprays of the tree be brought into churches for Whitsun decorations, and so it was that birch customs gradually adopted their christian aspect. A Whitsun custom remains in Russia, where a small birch tree is still brought into the house for three days and in honour of the spirit of returning life. Further north, in Siberia, birch is honoured as the 'deity of the door', and as the World Tree, helps shamans cross to and from the spirit world.
Small conical birch bark hats were found on chieftans in the graves of the german Halstatt period, believed to represent the guarding rites of passage through the doors of death and on into rebirth.
Birch also gave its name to the germanic rune berkana. It meant motherhood, bosom and protection and its shape - like a B - is derived from the Neolithic breasts of Mother Earth. Its connection with beginnings is long standing. In India the earliest versions of the Vedas were written on it, while in the Jewish Kabbalah, beth was the term associated with the beginning and denoted the number 'two' of Kabbalistic numerology - standing for the power that 'opens creation's process of taking form'.
Closer to home, in Ireland, beithe/ birch was referred to as the 'mother of learning' and began the alphabet. Lug (of the Long Arm) was warned that his wife was about to be taken to the underworld in the first ogham inscription brought to Ireland and carved onto the birch tree.
Protection by birch is another common theme throughout Europe. Cradles made of it protected babies, particularly from becoming changelings (swapped with a surrogate fairy creature), and a birch broom had both practical and ritual use in brushing out spirits, after which it was hung up by the roof or above the door as charm.
theirte airgead theirte taibhse
theirte gun dìon i bhon t-sùil nach iarrte
theirte gun dùisg i grian a’ chèitein
faic a cruinn àrd airgeadach
an iomadachd liath
mar phlaide thaibhsean
am barraichean mar chuan
de shumainn shiùbhlach
thar bhràighean nan gleann
’s i oighreachd gealbhuinn
sliochdmhorachd a buadh
theirte gur slat a’ ghaoil i
cuin a chunnacas crann
cho seang cho subhach
cho dìreach cho lìonmhor
leann mar loinid ann a fèithean
fìon brodach ann a fèithean
mìlseachd nam pòg ann a fèithean
silver, it’s said a ghost, it is said
protects from the harmful eye, they say
it’ll wake the mayday sun, they say
see its tall silver poles
their multitudinous grey
like a plaid of ghosts
their branched tops make
a sea of fluid billows
on the slopes of glens
it’s the sparrow’s estate
fertility is in its gift
the tree of love, it is said
when was a mast seen
so slender so merry
so straight so copious
a froth of ale in its veins
a teasing wine in its veins
sweet sap of kisses in its veins
poem by aonghas macneacail