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Birch - Medicine, Magic, Lore and Message

Updated: Jun 6, 2022


by Simona Yovcheva / 12th Jan. 2022 u



Birch, with its slender tall trunk, delicate branches and leaves, is a tree full of medicine, magic and mystery. There is a lot of folklore and superstition surrounding Birch. Also the medicine of the inner bark, leaves, twigs, buds and sap has been used by many cultures throughout the ages to cure various ailments. Below we will dive deeper into the symbolism, medicine, magic, plant-lore and the message of this beautiful tree.




Before the new leaves appear in spring and especially after rain, the tree’s purplish/reddish buds and twigs create a unique visual illusion in the autumn and winter woodlands. It is as if a mist or a purple-reddish haze surrounds the branches of the the birch and invites the spectator into a world of myth, imagination and magic. Anyone who has witnessed this phenomenon knows the eerie feeling in the gut, the awe in the hearts and the stories, shapes, forms and beings forming in the mind’s eye in these moments.

When there are a lot of young birch trees clustered together and one can see them from some distance, it truly is a mystical sight to behold. The vision reminds of a sea of purple spirit fire.


The visual illusion of this purplish fog or smoke creates a sense of a magical veil, which if entered, may transport you to the world of fairies, earth spirits, plant beings and change your life forever.

Even encountering a single silver birch in the woods or in the city can be a remarkable event. The pure white trunk, its slender and graceful figure and the long, thin, flowing twigs (reminding of maiden’s hair) ending with delicate droplet-like leaves make my heart skip a beat.

Her presence is unquestionably feminine in her essence and it comes as no surprise that in astrology she is connected to Venus - the planet of love, beauty, femininity, grace, creativity, pleasure and magnetism. The shape of her body is flowing, it almost has a liquid-like sense to it. I guess this is one of the reasons why birch is connected to the element water in magic and traditional folk medicine.




SYMBOLISM AND MAGIC


Birch is called the Lady of the Wood and has been associated with deities such as Freya, Frigga, Thor and Lugh among others. An olden Scottish name for birch is birk and in Ogham Alphabet ‘Beith’ (birch) is the first symbol representing the letter B. Birch is also linked to the Rune Berkana - a rune of continued growth, rebirth and renewal, a rune of love (in particular Self-Love), life changes, fertility etc. This rune is concerned with the flow of beings into their new forms. All of these themes are what birch teaches too for reasons which will get clearer as we go further into her world.


Birch has been also associated with purity, protection, light, exorcism, renewal and “the spirits of the dead and with those that mourn, for, in sympathy with the sorrowing, ‘weeps the birch of silver bark with long dishevell’d hair’.” (1)


I felt first hand the gift of sympathy and gentleness that the birch tree bestows upon the sorrowing heart. Earlier this week I was walking absentmindedly, overwhelmed by a heartbreak when the Lady of the Wood caught me (literally) and wouldn’t let go until I stopped in my track and stood with her.

This happened by what seemed as an accident (or not). As I was passing by her I got an urge to brush my palm against her trunk and in that moment her scaly bark got under my ring and wouldn’t let go unless I broke the bark, or my ring, or I stopped and gently freed my finger. I chose to stop… and receive her message. I stood by her, looking up at her naked swaying twigs, embracing her slender white trunk and feeling the immensity of my pain. I wept! My heart finally let the rivers of sorrow flow to the surface to be released.


She held me silently and softly as I mourned what has been lost, the mistakes, the failures, the regrets, the 'what if's.. all of it! She gently shifted my perception and reminded me of new beginnings, of new life, new exciting opportunities and quick growth after a completion of a cycle.

She breathed courage into me to be a pioneer as she is one... to grow tall, cleansed, free of the past, pure and bright on soil that has been burned and all life has been lost. Her message today was of renewal, of courageously exploring uncharted territories and bringing new life, hope and fertility onto an area that has experienced loss and destruction. What an appropriate message! After all birch trees (Betula Pendula - silver birch and Betula pubescens - downy birch, the two main species in Britain) are pioneering trees which populate a land that has been destroyed by wild fires or other natural disasters. They enrich the soil and improve the conditions for life so other species can follow. Birch is a fast growing tree, not waisting time and resources in her relatively short life (for a tree). Most birches live between 80 and 140 years. Her wood is flexible, bending with the high winds and under the weight of snow but very rarely breaking. Despite her graceful and gentle presence, she seems to be a touch lady.



FOLKLORE AND SUPERSTITION

Here in the UK and in some other European countries, It is believed that the brooms of witches were made out of birch twigs. This could explain the name of the peculiar fungus (witches’ broom) which grows on birch trees and creates nest like formations in its branches.


Brooms made from the twigs were used to sweep away evil and to cleanse a space. At some point in the past it was a custom to make cradles out of the Birch wood so that the tree could protect the precious and helpless babies carried in them.


Another interesting use of the twigs is for a practice called ‘Beating the Bounds’ in preparation of a sacred space to hold a ceremony or ritual. The bundled up twigs would be used to literary beat the marked boundaries of a space in order to cleanse, strengthen them and keep evil at bay. A similar practice has been used for exorcising evil out of people or animals. Scot Cunningham explains:

“Birch twigs have been used to also exorcise spirits by gently striking possessed people and animals…” (2)

In Victorian times the beating of naughty children was done with birch twigs for the same reason.


In Russia the young birch saplings were cut down and used in a a magical circle to evoke 'Leshii' - the Genii or spirit of the forest, for help.

"...it can be remembered that Leshii was considered to be a forest demon or Forest Devil, originating from the fallen angels." (3)

The cut birch saplings would be arranged in a circle in such way so all of the points were directed toward the centre of the circle. Whoever summoned, would enter the circle and call the spirit to them. The spirit would appear and assist the human asking for help but only if they promised him their soul in exchange.





HERBALISM/MEDICINAL PROPERTIES


Birch’s association with purity, protection and exorcism in folklore and magic most likely springs from its medicinal properties as a blood cleanser and an overall purifying herb. A tea from the young spring leaves and/or buds of the tree can be made and consumed quite safely. Decoction from the inner bark or twigs as well as oils and tinctures made from the tree have been traditionally used to cure various ailments too.

The properties of the tree are anti-inflammatory, diuretic, astringent, diaphoretic, immune boosting. The tree has an affinity to the skin and kidneys. For these reasons it is used to treat eczema, sore muscles, kidney infections and urinary tract issues, painful joints, burns, frostbites and some digestive issues.


“In Germany it is traditional to use the tea of the leaves or the spring sap of the birch (Betula alba) to remove proteinaceous and mineral waste from the blood, muscles, and joints. The tea of the leaves is a non-irritating diuretic that removes these waste products without inflaming the kidneys. It can even be safely used when there is nephrosis and chronic nephritis - birch contains saponins that are diuretic and have cortisone-like effect. It is used to dissolve earthen deposits like kidney stones and gouty and arthritic deposits. It opens the sweat glands, which assists the kidneys to remove waste, and the bark is used as emollient externally and internally to remove hard, indurated, mineralised skin. As a diaphoretic birch leaf can be useful in intermittent fever.” (4)


Birch is a great hair and skin tonic too. An infusion of the leaves, twigs and buds can be used as a hair wash or a poultice for dry and brittle hair or dry, colourless and/or ageing skin.


The gentle and encouraging presence of Birch has popped into my awareness in early January 2022, easing my transition into the new year and helping me on a journey of forgiveness, renewal, new growth and new hope. May her powerfully healing presence, magic and medicine bless you too whenever you need it.


If you liked this post and you'd like to stay wild, inspired and learn more about Plants' medicines, magic & myth, please consider subscribing to the BlOG. It is FREE and you join a friendly community of nature lovers.



Simona Yovcheva




References:


  1. Nuttall Clarke G. Trees and How They Grow. 1913. Accessed on: (https://folklorethursday.com/myths/birch-lady-wood/)

  2. Cunningham S. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Second Edition. Lewellyn Publications; Minnesota: 2013 p.56

  3. Boyer C. Plants of the Devil. Tree Hands Press: 2017. p.135

  4. Wood M. The Earthwise Herbal Volume 1: A complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books: California; 2008. p.139


Bibliography:


  1. Boyer C. Plants of the Devil. Tree Hands Press: 2017

  2. Blum R. Runes. Connections Book Publishing: UK; 2007

  3. Cunningham S. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Second Edition. Lewellyn Publications; Minnesota: 2013

  4. Nuttall Clarke G. Trees and How They Grow. 1913. Accessed on: (https://folklorethursday.com/myths/birch-lady-wood/)

  5. Wood M. The Earthwise Herbal Volume 1: A complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books: California; 2008.

  6. Woolf J. Tree Folklore:Birch, the Lady of the Wood. 2016 Accessed on: (https://folklorethursday.com/myths/birch-lady-wood/)

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