The poet Coleridge christened the Birch "The Lady of the Woods" and indeed no other tree is more deservedly admired for its intrinsic beauty. It is light, slender and elegant in stark contrast to the majesty, dignity and strength of the oak. However it takes precedence over the oak in that it needs no protection from other trees in any stage of its growth. It grows throughout the length and breadth of Northern Europe and penetrates farther north than any other tree. It can be found growing from Mount Etna to Iceland and in Russia and Siberia it is more common than any other tree. It is particularly valuable to the indigenous people of Lapland. It will grow in places where it is subjected to great heat, as well as where it must endure extreme cold. It will happily send its slender roots into rich humus or cling to the side of a mountain. When given ideal conditions, it grows tall and thin reaching maturity in about fifty years and rarely living beyond a century. It can grow up to eighty feet but more usually reaches about fifty feet.
The bark of the Birch is more enduring than its timber and has a habit of peeling off in shreds. The greater part of the bark is silvery white marked with brown and yellow touches which provides a stark contrast to the dark green hue of the tiny leaves. In April and May it produces flowers in the form of drooping catkins with the fertile ones bearing very small winged nuts. In October, when these nuts are ripe, they fall to pieces scattering numerous seeds that flutter in the breeze like a swarm of tiny flies. A kind of resin exudes from the leaves and young twigs, which is highly fragrant, especially after rain or heavy dew. In late summer and early autumn, there may be seen beneath the Birch the most striking of toadstools, the Fly Agaric. This plant has long been revered by the shamans of Siberia as a visionary plant. The thin white bark of the common Birch, which peels off like paper, is highly inflammable and will burn like a candle. The Birch also produces a sweet watery sap, which can be used medicinally and is collected as follows:
About the beginning of March an oblique cut is made, almost as deep as the pith, under a wide-spreading branch, into which a small stone or chip is inserted to keep the lips of the wound open. To this a bottle is attached to collect the flowing juice, which is clear, watery and sweetish, but retains something of both the taste and odour of the tree. This process does not appear to be injurious to the tree and can be repeated annually.
It makes excellent wine and the following ancient recipe is said to make a reliably palatable beverage: Boil the sap for about an hour with a quart of honey to every gallon of juice, a few cloves, some lemon peel, and a small portion of cinnamon and mace. It should then be fermented with yeast and bottled.
At one time the Highlanders of Scotland used the Birch to make almost everything including houses, beds, chairs, tables, dishes and spoons. They made their mills with it, along with carts, ploughs, gates, fences and even manufactured ropes from it. The branches were used as a fuel in the distillation of whisky and the spray for smoking hams and herrings. The spray was also used for thatching and the leaves for bedding when heather was scarce. A yellow dye can be prepared from the leaves and the wood makes excellent charcoal for gunpowder and crayons.
In Lapland, it grows to a good size and its bark is utilised for making roofing tiles and also as a waterproof cloak with a hole being cut out for the head. The bark is also wrapped around the lower ends of posts which are inserted in the ground to prevent the moisture penetrating them. In Canada and North America the bark is cut out to make a canoe. Pieces of bark are stitched together using the fibrous roots of the White Spruce and seams are waterproofed with a coating from the resin of the Balm of Gilead. The canoes are light and easily transportable from one lake to another and can carry as many as fifteen passengers. In Russia an oil is extracted from the Birch, which is used in the preparation of Russian leather making it both fragrant and more durable. Owing to the presence of this oil, books bound in Russian leather are not liable to become mouldy; they also prevent mouldiness in books bound in other leather which happens to be near them.
Birch has been used medicinally as a cleanser to treat kidney and urinary problems, rheumatism, gout, fevers and skin disorders. It has also been long used to spiritually cleanse with birch brooms sweeping out "evil-spirits" from homes and birch rods beating the same spirits out of criminals. It is thus very useful for making sacred space in both outdoor and indoor ceremonies. It is linked to the energies of the Mother Goddess, purification and renewal and so symbolises rebirth, new beginnings and spring.