In the early spring, when the trees are still bare, the bright, white bark of the silver birch (Betula alba) stands out in the hedgerows. The word ‘birch’ is derived from the Indo-European root word, bharg, meaning white or shining.
In lore, birch a tree of purification: criminals were flogged with birch twigs to drive the evil spirits from them, and birch twigs are still used in saunas to purify the body by stimulating circulation. Birch also has the feminine power of fertility and growth, as in the rune Beorc or Berkana, or the white wand of the Celtic goddess Brighid, with which she brought life back to the land after the winter. In Britain the association of the birch with fertility survived into the nineteenth century, when navvies (canal diggers) and their women considered themselves properly married if they had jumped across a birch broom.
When the first fresh leaves appear, they make a beautiful tea, which makes a spring cleanse, removing toxins from the body, so it may also be beneficial in the treatment of urinary complaints, cystitis, rheumatism, arthritis and gout. Herbalists use an infusion of birch leaves to help dissolve kidney and bladder stones.
The leaf tea, or a stronger leaf infusion can be used externally in a compress for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, as can a decoction of the bark. A macerated oil of the bark may be applied to the skin for dermal conditions, arthritis and rheumatism, cellulite, and muscular aches and pains.
Cosmetically, a birch leaf infusion or macerated oil applied externally can be effective in treating cellulite. Birch sap can be used, diluted, to wash the skin to remove blemishes and blotches, tone it and improve elasticity, and in hair treatments to strengthen it.
Birch beer or birch wine is made from the tapped sap of the tree in early spring, when it begins to flow, or the sap may be used as a natural sweetener.
Birch Leaf Tea
2 tsp fresh birch leaves or 1 tsp dried leaves
1 cup of boiling water
Infuse 15 minutes, strain and drink.
Birch Sap Wine
8 pints birch sap
½ lb. raisins
2 lb. sugar
Juice of 3 lemons
Boil the sap and add the sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid over the raisins and lemon juice. Cool the mixture to 20oC and add the started yeast. Ferment in a brewing bucket for 3 days, then strain into a demijohn and fit an airlock.
To obtain the sap, bore a small hole into the tree, just inside the bark, and insert a narrow tube, sloping downwards. Sap should start running from the tree (if it doesn’t, it is the wrong time of year). Put the free end of the tube into your container (eg a plastic soda bottle), which you can tie onto the tree. Don’t take too much from one tree. When you have what you need, remove the tube, put a piece of cork into the borehole, and the birch tree will seal itself after a short while. In very early spring (late February or early March here in the UK, depending on the weather) you should be able to draw off enough sap for a gallon of wine in a day.
Some sensitive individuals report diarrhoea, nausea, itching, rash and stuffy and runny nose after taking birch.