The birch was the first pioneer tree to return to the treeless zone after the Ice Age, 15,000 years ago. The birch has therefore accompanied human history since the Paleolithic Age. Perhaps that is why there are so many traditions from customs and medical history.
For many people, the birch is the most beautiful of all trees. Especially in spring, it enchants us with its slender trunk and delicate foliage. Probably the special significance of the birch in the cult of many peoples has to do with its fascinating appearance. Its snow-white bark makes it something special. The name birch means “light shimmering” or “white shining” and refers to the special bark.
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The birch: a character tree with striking flowers
In areas such as Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia and Canada, the birch is one of the dominant tree species. For this reason, the trees in these countries are often considered emblems of the nation.
In addition to the birch, the birch family (Betulaceae) also includes hazels, hornbeams and alders. Two species of birch are the most widespread in our country: the pendulous birch (Betula pendula) and the downy birch (Betula pubescens).
Typical for the downy birch is the velvety hairiness of the young twigs and young leaves on the underside. The weeping birch is hairless. Characteristic of the weeping birch – especially in older trees – are the black, furrowed longitudinal cracks in the bark. They are a strong contrast to the smooth, white parts of the bark. The bark of the downy birch is more grayish-white and hardly forms any cracks. Both types of birch are used equally, both in customs and in medicine.
As so-called pioneer trees, birches make hardly any demands on the soil. Like all pioneer trees, birches colonize barren sites first. They grow quickly, even on poor soil. However, birches only live to be about 120 years old.
Like all Betulaceae, the birch forms distinctive flowers called catkins. The flowering period is between March and May. After several warm days at a stretch, the birches sprout strongly. The pollen concentration is high at this time. While the pollen count in the lowlands subsides by the end of April, it can continue into early summer in the mountains.
Planting birch in the garden
In principle, you can plant the birch in spring or autumn. However, autumn is best suited. Then the birch is not busy with the formation of leaves and flowers. Therefore, it can use all its strength to grow the roots. Choose a sunny location. Moist clay soil is particularly suitable. Allow the birch enough space for its large shallow roots. After planting, make sure the soil is constantly moistened for a few months. As soon as the roots are developed far enough, the plant will provide itself with water.
The birch as a spring tree and in May customs
Birch has been the tree of new beginnings, light and spring since ancient times. It carries youth and its shining bark symbolizes the reawakening of light. It is the first deciduous tree to sprout its leaves in spring, heralding the awakening of nature. Thus, it gave the people of prehistoric times the certainty that winter is defeated. That is why both Europeanic and Celtic tribes consecrated it to a goddess of light and spring.
The wood of the trees is also used
In addition to the bark, the wood of the birch is also used. It is used, for example, as furniture or in the form of drinking vessels. As firewood, it develops little smoke because it contains only small amounts of essential oil.
In the birch flows a special sap
Tapping birch sap has a centuries-old tradition and in Nordic countries it is still common today. The slightly sweet birch sap rises up the birch trunk for only a few weeks from March to April. During this time, the tree pumps stored nutrients from the roots into the buds of the branches. Once the buds open, the bubbling sap flow largely dries up.
There are two methods of sap harvesting: piercing the trunk and capping a branch at its tip.
Sap harvesting from birch: the stem method
The trunk method involves drilling into the trunk at an angle upward at a height of about one meter. Depending on the size of the tap hole, an incredible three to ten liters of sap flow per day. Too intensive use can damage the tree. A two to three centimeter deep borehole is sufficient. The borehole, set at a slight upward angle, should have a diameter of about one centimeter. Then insert a suitable tube and immediately the sap begins to flow. Directly under it, you attach a beverage bottle with a funnel and fasten it to the tree with tape or wire. Then close the wound with tree wax.
The branch method for harvesting juice
The branch method is even more gentle for the tree: you cut a small branch so that its diameter at the cut is about one to two centimeters. Insert a plastic bottle into the branch and fasten it as sturdily as possible. If you hang the bottle in the morning, you can harvest the first juice in the evening. The juice contains many vitamins and minerals and about two percent fructose. It will keep in the refrigerator for only a few days. To keep it longer, it is advisable to freeze it, because when heated, many valuable ingredients are lost. In folk medicine, the juice is used for dehydration and detoxification by drinking a shot glass of it three times a day. Externally, it is used for washing skin diseases and as a hair tonic.
Note: Please tap only birch trees from your own garden or arrange juice harvesting with the owners or occupants of the property.
Use of birch in medicine
Birch occupies an important place in the medicinal treasury of folk medicine. The medieval authors recommended mainly the birch sap as a remedy. Birch bark and the birch tar obtained from it were also part of traditional medicine. The anti-inflammatory and skin regenerating effect of the bark component betulin could be proven in numerous studies. For example, it was shown to have a good effect on neurodermatitis and psoriasis.
The young, freshly unfolded leaves, as they can be found in May, are traditionally a component of spring and blood cleansing cures. At this time they are rich in flavonoids, which are responsible for the anti-inflammatory and diuretic effects. Most folk medicine applications have been scientifically confirmed. That is why people use birch leaf tea for flushing therapy in urinary tract infections. The flushing ensures that the number of germs is reduced. In addition to the bladder and kidneys, the excretory activity of the skin is activated. The metabolism-stimulating and detoxifying effect is used for the supportive treatment of rheumatic complaints and skin diseases.
For a birch tea, pour 200 milliliters of hot water over two teaspoons of dried birch leaves and steep for ten minutes.
The spring leaves are also suitable for food. But only the young may leaves can be eaten as a salad ingredient. Later they acquire a tough consistency and become tart in taste.
Note: This article was prepared with the utmost care. However, the author is not a doctor or pharmacist. The information given in the article is not to be understood as health advice. Therefore, please discuss any application of the health-related tips with your family doctor.
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