Birch is the first tree in the Celtic Tree Ogham. Symbolic of new beginnings, cleansing and purification, it is the perfect tree for this time of year when we are letting go of the old and welcoming in the new. Its elegant trunk is a familiar sight in British woodlands and it has many traditional uses. Known as the ‘pioneer tree’, it is the first tree to colonise new ground after disaster. Birch can transform grassland into woodland: as it grows it sheds bark, twigs and leaves to provide nourishment to the soil for other trees to follow in its wake. For this reason, it is a powerful tree to call on when you need to show others a new path or lead the way.
Its soft green deciduous leaves have serrated edges and are held on thin branches which move and bow in the breeze. Their heart-shaped beauty make them synonymous with love. The birch’s white strips of bark have earned it the name ‘Lady of the Woods’ and it brings a faery-like delicacy and airy presence wherever it grows. Despite its prettiness and apparent delicacy, it’s in fact a very hardy tree that grows in mountain conditions and extremes of cold.
Birch wood was traditionally used for furniture, tool handles and barrel-making. Babies’ cradles were often made of the heavy pale wood and, because it is so good for turning, cotton reels and bobbins were made of birch. The thin twigs were used for thatching and in Scotland the wood is burned as fuel in the whisky distilleries.
Birch bark produces an oil known as Birch Tar or Oleum Rusci, which is used for tanning and in the specialist book binding industry. The best Birch Tar Oil is still largely produced in the great birch forests of Russia.
Traditional Healing Uses
Birch leaves are very astringent and are made into birch tea, used as a laxative and diuretic. Herbalists use birch tea for urinary tract infections and as a spring cleansing tonic. Folk medicine relied on birch for muscle pain, using strips of bark soaked in hot water and placed on the affected area. Many cultures have used birch oil as an antiseptic to cleanse and heal wounds and skin infections. Research is currently being undertaken on the use of birch in healing skin cancers.
Make your own spring cleansing tonic (from Glennie Kindred’s Earth Wisdom)
1. Break a handful of Birch twigs and unopened buds into a jug.
2. Fill with boiling water, cover and leave overnight.
3. Drink the next day.
4. Top up with more boiling water and drink the new mixture the following day.
5. Continue doing this for several days.
Make a cleansing birch broom
Gather freshly dropped or cut birch twigs and bind them together with strong natural twine. You can either tie a loop at the end of the twine so you can hang your broom up, or create a handle from a stake of ash, willow or hazel wood. Use your broom to daily sweep the air around you, stating your intention to start afresh and clear the air. If you feel stuck or lacking in direction, use the broom to revitalise yourself and clarify your thoughts.