Birch

Synonyms: the European white birch, silver birch, common birch, paper birch
Scientific Name: Betula pendula Roth
Family: Betulaceae (birch trees)

Habitat

Central and northern Europe, in southern Europe only in the mountains

Constituents

Leaves: flavonoids, essential oil, amaroids, tannins, saponins, vitamin C
Birch sap: invert sugar, organic acids, salts, proteins, plant growth-promoting substances
Birch bark: betulinol ('birch camphor'), phytosterin, tannins, amaroids, essential oil, resins

Description

The birch is an aristocrat among trees: its slender form is wrapped in a silver-white bark and stands tall and graceful with branches that hang elegantly in gently drooping arches. The wind plays softly among the branches and moves the flexible twigs like waving hair. Epitomizing the spring with the soft green of its small diamond-shaped leaves, it is reminiscent of the traditional maypole. How different, on the other hand, is the birch in autumn dressed in golden leaves, so lovely and radiant. Less delighted, however, are people suffering from allergies when in April/May catkins appear on the birch and the wind spreads the yellow pollen of the male flowers far and wide. We can see the streets and squares where birches are found covered in pollen like yellow icing at this time of year. Unlike its smaller sister, Betula pubescens, the silver birch also grows in dry places. It is one of the first trees to colonize empty spaces, a true pioneer. After the Ice Age, it was one of the first to spread across the land after the glaciers receded.

Uses

On account of its stimulating effect, it is used in tonics which also have a purifying and cleansing effect on the skin. Birch tar, which is obtained from the "dry distillation" of the branches and trunk bark, is mainly used in skin disorders in animals. Birch sap, which is obtained in March and April by boring through the trunk, is helpful to thinning or oily hair.

Interesting Facts

Variations of the word "birch" can be found both in Sanskrit and among Slavic and Germanic peoples. It refers to the bright sheen of the glowing white bark. In line with this meaning, the various names from the Old High German 'birhha' or Old Indian 'bharg' mean "to be bright, radiant, shining." The word "Borke" also comes from "birch," which emphasizes this meaning. The scientific name "Betula" possibly comes from the Gallic and was used by the Romans. The word "pendula" comes from the Latin word "pendere," meaning to hang down.

In the cycle of life, the birch embodies growth and coming into being. As the herald of spring, it was the symbol of reawakening life, purity and youth. Due to its beauty, in earlier times the spirit of this tree appeared to man as a maiden clothed in light, full of magic and healing powers. For the people of northern climes, the feast day of the birch was always a celebration of the rebirth and marriage of heaven and earth. This tradition is still followed today in the maypole erected on May Day.

There seems to be endless ways of using the birch: Stone Age man made clothes out of the bast from the bark, shoes and containers from the bark, and birch tar was used to secure arrow heads and harpoons. In Lapland, cloaks and leggings were made out of the young bark which is as soft and smooth as

leather. The thin twigs were bound together to make besoms.

Birch bark was used for tanning and as paper. On account of its being impermeable to water, people in northern areas used to cover their roofs with it. Because it has many air pockets, the North American Indians used to build light canoes from it. Also on account of the insulating property of the air in the bark, the birch is one of the hardiest trees known.

Birch tar means that birch wood can be burnt even in a fresh and still damp state and is the basis for the perfume "Imperial Leather." Birch sap was known as a beauty potion even in the days of the early Teutonic peoples. The buds and young leaves are also suitable as an additive in spring quark. The thirsty birch is frequently planted today on damp ground for drainage purposes.