Sorry to everyone out there, this took so long to post since my left arm is slowing me down a bit, and there are spasms in my hand and face that are starting to make doing a lot of things painful. But what better inspiration to talk about something that is a good pain reliever for aches and pains!
Everyone knows birch, the tall silvery trees that seem to stand out so starkly against the forest background. It has many species and all are a part of the genus Betula. I always love paintings that include birch trees, and birch is the state tree of New Hampshire. Birch in Sanskrit is bhurga and translates basically to “tree whose bark was used for writing on,” and may be the root word for the Anglo-Saxon word for birch – beorgan which means “to protect” or “shelter.” In Czech the month of March is Březen and is derived from bříza which means birch, since birch trees tend to flower in that month there.
The birch, no matter where it grows, seems to draw notice from humans. Be it for functional use, mythology, or their own aesthetic beauty, every culture that has them in their region holds it in high honor and has a wide range of uses functional and spiritual, almost universally. The slash like markings on the tree are often a feature of mythology, though sometimes they look less like slashes, and more like eyes, hence one of its epitaphs – “The Watchful Tree.”
Mythology & Historical Use of the Birch
The common English name birch, is a very old word, and has evolved from the Old English birce or bierce. The genus Betula is from Latin, but is a lone-word (from influences of the languages of the Gauls) bethe (Old Irish), bedw (Welsh). Birch bark was used like paper in India and was what the Vedas were written on, as well as many other things since birch paper is sort of like papyrus, strong and does not start to rot. Even some Native American tribes that in general did not have written languages, recorded important events in pictorial form on birch bark.
I grew up reading the Narnia books, and one of my favorite scenes is where Lucy goes to a Dryad party. I loved the description of all the Dryads and how they were pale, slender, graceful and limber. I was always envious of her being able since the spirits of the trees all seemed so beautiful and so individual. One of the trees she sees is birch, and this is how C.S. Lewis describes her –
“[s]he looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing.”
Birch is a common tree to find in mythology and due to species of it existing all over the world, birch is in most traditional crafts, knowledge and medicine. It’s history spans the ages, and the world, and pretty much everywhere it grows it is a valued and respected tree.
In C.S. Lewis’s homeland of the British Isles, the birch tree held a sacred place in the mythology of the land. Beth is the first consonant of the Ogham alphabet, and is represented by the birch. In proto-German (which would be one of the invading languages of the Isles) the letter berkanan means birch which is also what it represents in the Scandinavian cultures. There is a legend that a birch tree halted a fire that would have destroyed the Swedish town of Umea, and the city is unofficially known as the “City of the Birches.”
Interestingly, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, the God Trees used in the stories are extremely similar to the Warden Trees used on burial mounds in Scandanavian cultures. Warden trees, or Vörðr, were planted on top of burial mounds as protection, or some think it is also as a representation of Yggdrasil, and they were often birch. One birch warden tree was still alive and being offered libations of beer until 1874 when it was finally cut down. The Warden Tree’s job was to keep people who would disturb the dead away, sometimes through physical force, spooky manifestations, or just a simple weird feeling that makes you not want to stay. In some cultures the tree houses a spirit that protects the area bringing vengeance and misfortune to any who dare upset it. Like most spirit dwellings you could save yourself from their ire by providing the required sacrifices. Which would keep the spirits happy, and engaged in their job of hanging out to protect things – sorta like a spirit security guard. The word wraith is derived linguistically from the warden trees, and this is why burial mounds are generally believed to have wraiths or why Tolkien wrote about barrow-wights inhabiting mound tombs.
In Russia, the birch is considered the national tree, and some of the Siberian Shaman traditions hold birch to be sacred. Some of the plains cultures of Asia and Eastern Europe would place deceased shamans in birch trees, since they were the way point between this world and the spirit world. Allowing that deceased shaman to travel to the spirit world where they could continue to help, heal, and guide their people. It is possible that the birch held such a high spiritual value since fly agaric mushrooms are often found growing around their roots. Reindeer eat them, and people noticed would then act very strange. They would be “tripping balls” to use the parlance of our times. Eventually one brave soul wanted in on that action, and for some strange reason they jumped to the conclusion that the best way to get to whatever was making the reindeer act weird, would be to drink the deer pee. My current suspicion is that it was probably some distant relative of Bear Grills. Fortunately, later some bright spark decided that pee drinking was a) gross and b) unnecessary since you could skip the reindeer middleman and just eat the mushrooms themselves.
These mushrooms were a key part of most “vision” rituals as they are a powerful hallucinogenic. Other cultures used the birch as the center pole for their Siberian plains tents, called yurts. The tree represented the way point between the worlds and shamans would sometimes climb them, or have initiates climb them, since the climb symbolically represents the traveling to the spirit world.
Freya and Frigg were tied to the tree, since they are both goddesses associated with love, and fertility like the birch. Eoster, the debated goddess since she is only referenced by Bede, is associated wtih birch and is the root of our modern word for Easter and is most likely the “pagan” ritual that was then co-opted by the converted Christians unwilling to give up their old ways. Many people are familiar with Loki due to the recent comic book movies, but Loki was a real Norse God who got up to many shenanigans, frequently involving his incredibly strong, but usually quite daft, brother Thor. One of the most famous is the story of how Loki caused Baldur to be killed with his trickery. Loki was chained for his evil ways, and is the reason that he was said to be “fortunate in his deceit” in a Rune Poem – since he was chained and not killed.
Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.
Because it is one of the first trees to bud and show leaves in spring, as well as it being a pioneer species (that means it tends to go where no tree has gone before, or were before and aren’t now), has led to it being a symbol of life, growth, and fertility. It is often used in “spring cleaning” rituals to keep evil out of the house. It was this use that is probably the reason it was also used in the Beating of the Bounds rituals in the British Isles, as it would drive out any lingering bad luck from the previous year. Birch was also used as the disciplinary rod of choice since it was thought to deliver punishment as well as driving the evil out of the child that was misbehaving.
There is also the belief that striking cattle with birch twigs would make them more fertile. This is similar to the tradition of bringing birch saplings into barns and houses to promote fruitfulness, and sometimes the striking with birch twigs was used on people, for the same fertility reasons. Other regions, a birch twig given from a girl to a guy she likes, is a sign of encouragement. There is even an old form of marriage ritual is called a “Besom Wedding,” that was recognized as a legally binding ceremony up until the 1800’s. The couple jumped over a birch broom, and they were considered wed.
Birch was considered a protective force, and branches were placed over doorways, or lent against barns to protect them from evil. Birch was also a common tree to use for a Maypole for May Day celebrations. Also birch twigs or boughs were put over cradles to protect babies, as well as making their toys, and sometimes even the cradle itself, of birch to protect the baby from unseen forces and evil spirits. In the highlands of Scotland, a cross was made of birch twigs for ceremonies for St Brigid, and a straw, or stick, effigy representing the child placed in a cradle, as part of a ritual for protection. Then a rod was placed next to the effigy, sometimes made of birch (sometimes other woods but usually birch), which was known as Bride’s (Brigid) birch or wand, and this ritual would protect the baby, until the next celebration of St. Brigid. Some other cultures just made children’s beds of birch twigs for the same sort of Brigid rituals. Though birch twig beds in more often for fertility rights, and feature in a lot of love poetry and stories where lovers meet on the bed of birch, or under birches.
Birch has always been known for its flexibility, there is a Native American legend from the Blackfoot Confederacy tribes telling how the birch despite intense wind bent, but never broke. Infuriating the creator, who then slashed the bark of the birch with his hunting knife for its disobedience. The Ojibwe people (better known as Chippewa) tell the story that the marks come from the Thunderbird throwing lightening at the tree after Waynaboozhoo (the hero of the story) steals fire in the form of a rabbit from the Thunderbird. This is has also led to the belief among the Ojibwe that the birch is immune to lightening strikes, and is the best place to shelter during a lightening storm. The Odawa people tell the story of the helpful birch, which is the manifestation of an extremely helpful warrior that lost his life in battle. He was gifted with the ability to help people in a good way, and after his death, the birch tree grew from his grave and continued to help the people.
Birch is an extremely helpful tree, and is probably why it is featured around the world in mythology as well as local crafts. Birch can do many many things, its bark as we mentioned was used as paper, and makes great paper pulp, but it was also used as clothing. Birch hats have been found in burials, and birch bark was used as leg coverings in Scandinavian cultures to keep out the damp. The twigs were used as kindling, to make besoms (a type of broom), and the shavings were great for smoking meats. The shavings or sawdust was good for creating dyes, as well as tanning leather. Its outer bark due to its lack of decay and waterproofing oils was used to make baskets and containers, as well as roofing, and canoes. With the bark removed, birch is the choice of wood for the Yule log, and is a great firewood, but needs preservative treatment if it is to be used for woodworking (things like furniture, flooring or utensils). The “Spruce Goose” is actually made mostly of birch, despite its name. The oil in the wood makes it combustible and burns similar to a candle, and that oil is collected and used to tan leather (which results in Russian leather). You can also extract it and cook it down into Birch Tar, which has been used as one of the oldest types of super glue (Ancient Greek pots have been found fixed with it). The sap can be brewed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, and is also a great home-made soda. (I haven’t made my own birch beer yet, but I plan to, and I generally buy as much as I can when I am able to find it, because it is awesome. Like spicy root beer awesome.)
Birch as Medicine
After all those uses, birch is also a great medicinal tree. If you are ever lost in the woods and you break an arm or a leg you can use the outer birch bark, after it is soaked in some water, to make a cast to keep the limb immobile. It will also deliver pain relief if the inner bark is included and can be used as a topical pain “patch” for injuries if you are out in the wild. For a long time sweet birch (Betula lenta, or sometimes called black birch) was used to commercially produce wintergreen and was sometimes used for commercial production of a type of wintergreen oil (since it is much safer to ingest), so if you buy wintergreen oil, again be sure you know you are getting the real wintergreen. Like wintergreen, it is a good topical analgesic and birch does carry methyl salicylate, again like wintergreen, and is why it is sometimes sold as such. Birch is good for treating joint pain, back pain, the usual daily aches and pains, and headaches. The salicylate is held in the inner bark and is basically aspirin, and it is the reason it was used in most cultures as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, arthritic pain in general, as well as “moon time” cramps.
Birch also contains a lot of vitamin C, and we already know how important vitamins are for your body to work and reduce your pain. Birch has betulinic acid in it as well which is a known anti-inflammatory, and has promise as an anti-malarial and anti-retroviral, but not enough research has been done yet. There is also a lot of mentions that it is being studied for treating tumors, since it could inhibit or reduce growth, but this has been mostly focused on for melanoma treatment. Betulinic acid also is very astringent and works well for skin complaints, like eczema and psoriasis, even insect bits. It is also antiseptic so it is good for wounds and preventing infection topically. Other uses of birch, specifically betulinic acid from birch, include helping with lymphatic diseases, urinary infections, respiratory infections (like tuberculosis), and due to its diuretic nature it helps with edema and gout. Birch bark also has a mild sedative action, and is a great addition with rosemary in the bath to relieve pain as well as relax the body and mind.
There are loads of species of birch, and they all generally have the same properties, but I suggest only using the above mentioned black birch, or if you are in Europe or Asia silver birch (Betula pendula). You can use other species, but make sure you do your research before using any species of birch, and again always use any thing you put in and on your body in moderation.
Leaves are safer to use in teas than bark, since just like wintergreen you need to treat this with respect. So small doses and use common sense, and make sure you speak with your doctor to make sure this won’t interact with anything you are already taking. That doesn’t mean you can’t use the bark or small twigs, they are safe to use and a small twig green from the tree is a safe teething option for children since it provides relief from the pain and tastes quite nice (obviously they would need to be supervised while doing this, just sayin’). There are a lot of pre-made options here too, you can buy capsules of birch bark, oils, and so forth, make sure before using any of them you are researching which species is used in the preparation.
Birch Tea for Pain
- 5-7 whole leaves of Birch (1-2 teaspoons if dried and crumbled)
- 8 oz Boiling water
You will need to collect the leaves in spring, and you want new leaves that have just come out on the tree. You can use them fresh, or dry them in a dehydrator or in the sun, you may want to put a net, muslin, or cheesecloth over them if you dry them out side. They are ready to use dry when they snap under pressure and then crumble easily. Steep in a covered teacup for 4-8 minutes, the longer you steep the stronger the tea. This is good for pain, pretty much anything you would take an aspirin for, but it is also good if you are suffering from water retention, or have edema since it is a diuretic. Also this is a good rinse for your hair, and it smells nice.
ProTwigTip: You can also make this with young twigs or bark, you need the cambium (that’s the layer between the bark and the wood) to be green. That is the part that carries salicylate in the woody parts of the tree. You can use a teaspoon of twigs or bark (just make sure you include the cambium), and steep it just like the leaves. This will be stronger though, and again you should treat all of these with respect and use common sense. Don’t take more than 3 cups a day.
Birch Twigs for Pain
- Birch twigs, fresh off the tree (preferably)
You can also chew the twigs for headache relief, pain from braces, and these are great for teething babies (used with supervision of course) since chewing the twig will release the salicylate and bring pain relief. All you have to do is just break a twig off a branch, give it a wash, and chew it.
Birch Leaf Bath for Pain & Inflammation
- 2 handfuls of fresh or dried Birch leaves
- 4-5 large sprigs of Rosemary
- 1-2 tablespoons of Lavender flowers
Draw a warm bath, and throw everything in and have a good soak, but for no longer than 20 minutes. This will help with muscle and joint pain, and its anti-spasmodic properties will relax spasms, and help relax the body to bring on sleep if needed.
ProTwigBathTip: Twigs are obviously pokey if you use them in a bath, and bark as well, so they aren’t great for the bath. If you don’t want to spend the time cleaning the tub afterwards or if you need to make a stronger bath, this is also another good option to use the infusion instead. To make the infusion use 2 large handfuls of twigs or birch (or leaves), and cover with enough boiling water to submerge them, allow to steep for at minimum 10 minutes up to an hour. Pour liquid into a warm bath, and soak for 20 minutes.
Epsom Birch Bath Salts
- 40 ounces (5 cups) Epsom salts
- 10 drops Birch Essential Oil
- optional: any other oils, like rosemary and lavender above, or even chamomile could be added to this to help with whatever sort of pain you have.
Mix well, no lumps, and store in an airtight container. Add a cupful to a bath and enjoy a relaxing soak that will bring pain relief and sooth painful joints and spasms. You do need to be very careful using the essential oil of birch, but diluted this much you should have no issues, but it is best to do a test patch before doing this bath if you haven’t been exposed to birch before. Make sure you also know what species the oil is made of as well.
- 1 part birch bark
- 2 parts alcohol (vodka, grain alcohol)
Add everything to a seal-able jar, mason jars are usually best, and store in an undisturbed place for about a month. Make sure to shake once every day or so. Never take more than ½ a teaspoon, and you should start with a ¼. No more than 3 times a day. This can be added to teas, honey, juice, or under the tongue. Birch, I think, tastes very nice and isn’t offensive to the palate to where it would need to have the taste masked.
There are birch essential oils out there, but make sure you are using one you know is sourced and distilled reliably. Buy local if you can. Both oils and tinctures are difficult to use on the go so you can always make a quick salve or a beeswax salve for on the go applications. These are also good for skin issues like eczema or psoriasis.
- 1/3 c Oil (any good quality oil)
- 1/3 oz Beeswax, granulated or grated
- 10-15 drops Birch Oil or 20-30 of Birch Tincture
You can always add other things to this, but birch smells quite nice on its own. It goes well with floral scents like lavender or jasmine if you don’t care for the smell. In a double boiler, heat the oil and slowly add in the beeswax stirring until it is completely melted and mixed. Remove from heat and stir in birch oil or tincture, pour into containers with lids and allow to cool.
Birch Quickie Salve
- 2 ounces Coconut oil (solid at room temp)
- 10-15 drops Birch Oil or Tincture
Using a mixer, whip oil and add in the oil a drop at a time while whipping. Whip until fluffy with a texture similar to a whipped lotion. Store in a container with a lid, and this is also great for skin issues as well as for pain, joint pain, and muscle spasms.
There are a lot of birch beer, and birch wine recipes floating around. Many countries that use birch use the sap fresh or fermented, so you can always use an old family recipe if you have one floating around. If you don’t, you should make your own. I plan to make some myself in the near future but locating birch syrup is difficult. If you live in an area where birch grow you can tap your own sap (instructions here). You can drink the birch sap right from the tree, and is supposed to be quite good this way.
Birch Beer (Birch Soda) from GroupRecipes
- 5 gallon crock
- 4 quarts finely cut sweet birch twigs
- 1 gallon honey
- 4 gallons birch sap
- 1 cake soft yeast (or a packet of yeast)
- 1 slice toasted rye bread
Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into the bottom of a 5-gallon crock.
In a large kettle, boil together the honey and birch sap for 10 minutes.
Pour over chopped twigs.
When cool, strain to remove the twigs.
Return to the crock.
Spread cake of soft yeast on the slice of toasted rye bread.
Float on top of the beer in the crock.
Cover with a cloth.
Let ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle, about a week but it depends somewhat on temperature.
Bottle the beer and cap tightly.
Store in a dark place and serve it cold after the weather gets hot.
It should stand in the bottles about 3 months before using.
If opened too soon, it will foam all over and pop worse than champagne.
Since birch isn’t frequent in my area, extract is my only option for birch beer and it does not have the same medicinal properties, but it sure does taste good. So don’t despair if you want to make birch beer but have no birches. I also have never made these wines, but the recipes looked interesting, I plan to (if possible) since it has a lot of fans that say it tastes like a good sweet wine. There are a lot of recipes floating around but the easiest I found is the one here, which I have copied here with some of my own additions to it.
- 8 pints sap
- ½ lb Raisins
- 2 lb sugar
- 2 Lemons, juiced
- ½ a packet of Red Star Champagne yeast
- 6 ounces White Grape Juice Concentrate
You need freshly collected sap for this, bring to a boil and add the sugar and simmer for 10 minutes. Place the raisins in a fermentation bucket or carboy, pour in the boiling liquid and lemon juice. When it has cooled to 86 degrees or cooler add the yeast and seal with an airtight brew vent to prevent messy explosions. Allow to ferment for three days at minimum no more than 7, before straining, and transferring to a secondary fermenter also with a brew vent. Let stand for about a week and then bottle the wine and store in a cool place for at least a month. Though, I suggest 3 months for this since that seems to be the consensus on the older recipes, but one month should be plenty of time for it to develop an alcoholic zing to it.
Lastly, bark bread, and ersatz food has existed for ages and while making all your bread out of bark flour won’t taste so great a small addition to it will provide a good punch of vitamins to a hearty type of bread. This seems to be one of the tastier looking recipes, and this is one last thing I have not tried but am now excited to that I know about it.
Ingrid’s [Birch] Bark Bread from Julie’s Kitchen
- 100 g or 3.5 oz yeast
- 1 liter or 1 quart lukewarm water
- 1 liter or 1 quart rye flour
- 1.5 liters or 1.5 quarts white flour
- 2 dl or 1/2 cup bark flour (Ingrid uses bark from her own pine forest) [Refer to this guide or this guide for harvesting birch bark, and drying it to make bark flour]
Blend the ingredients and knead the dough. Allow to rise for one hour. Roll out into smaller rounds. Baking time varies according to the size of the bread.
(I suggest for medium rounds which are the size of pita breads 10 minutes at 225 C or 437 F – sprinkle water over before baking)
Finally, you must remember that everyone is different and you need to start with small doses of this and increase slowly. Keep in mind that this should only be used internally in large amounts under supervision, it is not the same level of danger as wintergreen being ingested but you can quickly toe the line of safety if this is used unwisely. You always want to make sure anything you use is not going to interact badly with anything else you are taking, so check for interactions on sites like WebMD. Always do your own research, and if you are in doubt in any way whatsoever, ask a professional!
For more information on Irish trees and their legends, this is a fantastic resource.