We can all feel the quickening, so now’s the time to talk about Birch, that fast growing speeding deciduous, first into the fray in the epic poem ‘Battle of the Trees’ from the Celtic ‘Book of Taliesin’. Birch is a useful tree in many ways. It really is first to colonise new spaces, being a pioneer species. It marks January in the Celtic tree calendar, under the ancient name of ‘Beithe’. It is the tree of new beginnings and rebirth.
Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is the most common species in the UK. When young, it forms a slender tree up to 26m high, with a narrow crown and a smooth white-silver bark with horizontal brown darts on it. Older birches tend to spread out more, and their bark is patterned with dark triangles or diamonds.
Close cousin Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) is differentiated by it’s more oval leaf shape, and the softly downy buds in Spring. The other two you will come across in people’s gardens and verges are the Paper-Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera) and the Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis), with its pretty golden-white peeling bark. When I was a kid (and even now, if I had the time) I loved collecting the semi translucent sheets of papery bark and putting them up to the light, imagining making the most delightful artists paper out of them. So apologies, folks, it’s time for a poem.
columns of Viking daydream;
powder greys of gunshot, white satin bride’s regalia
where Brunhilde walked with Beowulf
amongst those slender icy silver halls;
thirsty for the crystal gift of waters
from the Newest born.
What can we do with Birch?
Birch sap can be tapped and drunk straight, purified by the filtration system of the tree. if you are ever stuck out in mid-March (approximately) without access to clean water, this will save your life. No matter how unlikely you are to be that far from a pub. I have tapped birches in the woods near me, and yes, the sap is like very pleasant soft water. Not as sweet as I’d expected, but it tasted decent.
So how do you do it? The process is akin to giving blood.
You will need:
- Plastic water bottles (2 litre lemonade ones are good, but smaller is fine)
- Strong twine
- Hand drill with bit the width of the drinking straw or slightly smaller
- Drinking straws
- First aid plasters!
1 ) Find a large birch in mid March. Older ones are better as they are bigger and carry more sap.
2) Drill carefully and neatly with the hand drill at an angle of 45 degrees, slanting upward, into the trunk.
3) You should only need to drill about 1cm -1.5cm before the sap starts running out. When this happens, don’t drill any further. Take out the drill.
4) Insert the drinking straw into the hole. If you have measured it to the drill bit, it should be a tight fit.
5) Position the water bottle just below the dripping straw, close enough so you can angle it into the neck of the bottle.
6) Tie the bottle firmly to the trunk with the twine.
7) Leave it for several hours, or most of the day, or overnight, depending how much you want and how much time you have. I got about a litre in 2 hours.
8) Collect your birch sap and enjoy!
9) It is considerate to the tree to protect the wound, just like we do, from fungal spores and other tree germs. I like to stick a first aid plaster over the hole to help the tree heal.
If you can be bothered, and you have a LOT of birch trees nearby, and a lot of free time, you can try to make Birch Syrup by boiling down the sap. This is quite a tax on the trees however, you need a lot of sap just to make a tiny amount of syrup. If you ask me, I’m sticking to honey.
Fresh green Birch leaves can be used to make a cleansing tonic tisane (posh word for tea). Boil the leaves for several minutes then strain them out. Great if you need vitamins after a long winter stuffing yourself with chocolate! Birch leaves contain flavonoids and astringent tannins, having long been used as a beauty tonic, invigorating drink and facial wash by Celtic maidens attempting to snare the man of their dreams. Well, you never know.