Plant, Herb, and Tree Lore

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Betula pubescens / alba

Birch Tree
Article by Thomas Baurley, herbalist for Technogypsie Productions and The Tree Leaves’ Oracle. © 2014 – copyrighted and all rights reserved. Full on-going article and research diary here: To purchase or obtain birch bark for your own use, purchase from us here:

Common Names: Betula alba, Birch, downy birch, moor birch, white birch, European white birch, hairy birch, Beithe, Bereza, Berke, Beth, Bouleau. The name comes from the Old English birce, bierce, or Proto-Germanic *berk-j?n and the generic name betula is from Latin.

Taxonomy: Kingdom: Plantae; Angiosperms; Eudicots; Rosids; Fagales; Betulaceae; Betula; Betula; Betula pubescens

Locality: Native throughout North America, Northern Europe, Iceland, Northern Asia, and Greenland. They love light, dry and acid soils and can cling to rocks on mountain sides. Growth preference in colder climates and can be found further north than most trees.

Description: Very common in European landscape and lore, it is one of the most common native broad-leaved trees. It is a deciduous tree Growing to a tall height of 10-30 meters in maturity with a slender crown and a trunk upwards of 70 cm thick with smooth dull grey-white bark marked with dark horizontal lenticels. The sapling starts out like a small shrub in its sapling phase with grey-brown finely down shoots – always with elegant, drooping branches providing a light canopy and whip like twigs. Ovate-acute 2-5 cm long and 1.5-4.5 cm broad finely serrated marginated leaves create wind-pollinated catkins that bloom early spring before the leaves sprout. This creates a pendulous cylindrical aggregate fruit that is approximately 1-4 cm long a nd 5-7 mm diameter in size disintegrating during maturity into individual seeds that are upwards of 2 mm long with two small wings along their sides. The tree bark has a white color and sheds layers like tissue paper – which is used by some as paper. The smooth twigs have little dark warts. The Downey birch has a greyish bark that doesn’t peel and twigs that are smooth with no warts, barks of both become rugged with darker diamond shaped crevices throughout growth. The leaves and flowers are small, triangular, pointed with a toothed edge producing female flowers called “catkins” beginning with a bright green maturing into a dark crimson throughout summer. Before the seeds drop to the ground, they hang off the tree like ‘lamb tails’. There are many species of “Birch” and sometimes this species gets confused with Betula pendula – the Silver Birch. In North America, these two trees are sometimes treated as conspecific, although in Europe are distinctly two different species. Best way to tell the difference is the Downey Birch (pubescens) has smooth, downy shoots that are hairless and warty in the silver birch (pendula). Downy’s bark is dull grey white while the silver birch has striking white papery bark with black fissures. Leaf margins differ as in downey being finely serrated and silver having coarse double-toothed margins. The downy birch is a tetraploid (4 sets of chromosomes) and the silver birch is a diploid (2 sets).

Cultivation: These are pioneer species with light wind blow seeds that can grow quickly on bare ground without planting. Preference of light, dry and acid soils. The birch stands up to harsh weather elements including wind, frost, and heat.

Common Uses: Commonly used in lotions, rinses, and creams for its fragrance. It was used by Native Americans to build canoes, wigwams and other structures as it is water-resistant. They are a preferred tree for their ability to provide a light open canopy with spaced small leaves giving light shade on the ground giving ability to grow mosses, grasses, and flowering planets beneath the canopy. A common timber tree in Scandinavia used as a pale, smooth, light hardwood for furniture, spools, bobbins, boxes, handles, and plywood. Smaller trees used for toys, tools, and handles. The bark is waterproof so used for roofing materials and tanning leather. Twigs are bound together as “besoms” and used as brushes or brooms. A tar made from the bark is thermoplastic and waterproof used as a glue for arrows and medicinal applications. Ground birch bark fermented in sea water is used to season wool, hemmp, or linen sails and ropes in Norwegian boats. As a firewood burns well without popping and very flammable.

Culinary: In Sweden the bark is ground up and used to make a bread, in Finland made into “mmmi” a traditional dish for Easter packed and baked in boxes of birch bark. In Iceland, the Bjork tree is used to make a sweet birch liquor. A birch beer root-beer like soda is made in northern regions.

Medicinal: Birch oil is a well known treatment for skin conditions and to repel insects. The tree sap is used as a natural shampoo and can be used as a remedy for dysentery and urinary infections. An infusion of the leaves is used as an antiseptic and diuretic. The bark soaked until moist in water can be formed into a cast for broken limbs.

Magical: Seen as having the powers of beginnings, renewal, protection, stability, and new journeys. Used in charms and talismans to ward off evil, banish fright, and instill courage. Associated with beauty, tolerance, and new beginnings. A broom made of birch is used by Witches to brush out the old year the morning of the Winter Solstice. Cut bark is added to protection spells. Birch beer is drank for protection from psychic attacks. Maypoles are commonly made of birch. Newborn cradles made to protect infants.

Folklore and Legends: Nicknamed by some modern Neo-Pagans as “The Lady of the Woods”. It is associated with the first Celtic Tree calendar month (December 24th – January 20th), and is prescribed as the first consonant of the Ogham alphabet “Beith”. Astrologically associated with the planet Venus and elements of air and water. It symbolizes renewal and protection as the Tree of Inception and New beginnings. Associated with Crystals, Daisies, Eagles, Pheasants, Egrets, and the color white. Associated with the Goddess Freya, Brigid, Venus, and Thor. Believed to ward off evil, fear, terror, and instill courage. The birch is commonly used in yule logs. The twigs used to light Beltane fires. Copulation in Birch forests encouraged pregnancy. In Celtic cultures, the birch symbolizes growth, renewal, stability, initiation and adaptability. The tree is also associated with the Tr na ng, the land of the dead and the Sidhe, in Gaelic folklore, and as such frequently appear in Scottish, Irish, and English folksongs and ballads in association with death, or fairies, or returning from the grave.

To purchase or obtain birch bark for your own use, purchase from us here:

  • Encyclopedia of Life “Betula pubescens”. Website referenced 10/26/2014 at
  • Forestry Commission “Birch” Website referenced 10/26/2014 at
  • The Goddess Tree “Birch: The Lady of the Woods” Website referenced 10/26/2014 at
  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia “Betula pubescens”. Website reference 10/26/2014 at
  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia “Birch”. Website referenced 10/26/2014 at

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