Mabh Savage April, 2016
Notes from the Apothecary: Birch
Image: A silver birch from my own garden, hung with fat balls that feed birds and squirrels alike.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the birch the ‘Lady of the Woods’, and I am inclined to agree. I have always found this tree to have a very feminine presence. At a sacred wood that I visit from time to time, there is a crossroads of tracks and on one side there are great, old oaks, and on the other slender but gnarled, ancient birch trees. This place always feels like it is a meeting point for male and female energy. Not a point of balance exactly; more a point where diversity and differences are appreciated fully. The difference between light and dark; summer and winter; the roots deep in the ground and the topmost twigs touching the sky.
When I recently moved house one of the selling points of this property was the lovely old birch pictured. You can’t tell from this image, but the tree is taller than the house and attracts squirrels and numerous birds. Magpies have been pulling the slenderest twigs off for nesting material, and the catkins have been disappearing too so I suppose these are food for someone! I can’t wait to see what the tree looks like fully clothed in green, as we move further into spring.
The Kitchen Garden
Of course not everyone has a birch tree growing in their back yard, but they are quite commonplace and easy enough to find. Birch isn’t a standard kitchen ingredient, however the sap of the tree does make a wonderful wine. The wine is classed as one of the most seasonal, because the period in which the sap can be tapped is approximately two weeks at the start of spring, one of the shortest foraging seasons around. The sap is boiled and mixed with sugar, then yeast is added as usual to start the fermentation.
The chemical composition of birch sap makes it analgesic, anti-inflammatory and also a strong diuretic. In her Modern herbal, Mrs Grieves tells us that the young shoots and leaves are a good laxative. She also says an infusion of the leaves is useful for gout, rheumatism and dropsy (water retention). The oil of the bark, also known as birch tar, is a remedy for eczema. The inner bark is recommended for fever.
Culpeper maintained the birch was a tree of Venus, reinforcing the femininity described above He recommended the sap for breaking up bladder and kidney stones, and also to soothe mouth ulcers.
Birch tar is used for waterproofing items, such as leather bottles and other containers. Birch wood is used for bobbins, staves, and a multitude of other items. The twigs are used for brooms and besoms, and even thatching.
Birch wood is used to make some types of paper, and in India and Russia the bark was used as a medium for texts; some have been discovered intact, from as far back as the 13th century.
The Witch’s Apothecary
Beith is the first letter in the Ogham alphabet, and means birch. The sign was used to warn Lugh of danger to his wife, and was also used to protect his wife. The source of this, Auraicept na n-Éces, also tells us that the first Ogham was cut into birch wood. Birch is therefore associated with knowledge, and the fixing of knowledge; the ability to pass words from one person to another- a very rare thing for Celtic peoples. From this tale we can also assume the powers of protection, prophecy and an association with family.
If you are lucky enough to have a besom or broom made with birch twigs, sweeping the boundary of your property will ensure your space is protected and will brush away unwanted energies.
The birch flowers before it grows leaves; dangling short, brown catkins which eventually carpet the ground beneath. This means it is one tree that seems alive in the very early spring, reinforcing the association it has garnered with new beginnings and renewal.
Home and Hearth
At this time of year, you may still be able to gather some birch catkins from the ground beneath a birch tree. They are about an inch long and brownish; nothing beautiful to look at! See if you can find a few, and use them at the east of your altar or sacred space. They represent the dawn of the new season, the return of the sun and your own new beginnings or a start of a new project.
If you find a birch tree that already has some of the white, papery bark peeling off, finish the job and take home a little scroll of birch. Please, please don’t start peeling bark off trees unless it’s already practically hanging off. Trees need their bark and forcing the tree to part with the bark is disrespectful and damaging and will not help you in your magical endeavours.
Use the papery scroll in your spell work. Write words of power, a name, a goal, an intent, or simply an emotion on the paper. Hold it in your hands or place it on your altar, either at north or east if evoking the power of the tree, or elsewhere if evoking other deities or spirits. Complete your spell by burying or burning the ‘scroll’, or keeping it in a pouch for a turn of the moon.
I Never Knew…
Apparently birch sap can also be used as a shampoo! Considering it contains quite a bit of sugar, that sounds like a sticky situation to me…