Few trees have been so important to so many people.Historically, Birch (Betula papyrifera) as well as other species, were possibly the most important trees to many indigenous people across the northern latitudes around the world.This tree increased the quality of life of people for thousands of years.The fact that the Birch tree varies in thickness and can be split in numerous layers, and that it has a resinous inner bark, which makes it waterproof and resistant to decay, makes it an extremely versatile tree.
One of its great uses was for shelter.Indigenous people of what is now the United States, used Birch to make Wigwams, Tee-pees and other structures for living.The inner bark of Paper Birch was used extensively to repel water from structures.Probably the most well know use of Birch is its use in making Canoes. Canoes have been a part of cultures around the world for many hundreds of years.Birch trees exist in a 360-degree radius of the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth.Many cultures existing in that radius used Birch trees to build their canoes. It is unclear whether or not the idea was passed along from group to group from Siberia, parts of Japan to the North American content (or in reverse order), or if it was created in all parts simultaneously from shear need of water travel and on hand supply of Birch.The Anishinabeg (natives of what is now Michigan) none the less had their version of the Birch Bark Canoe.In making a Canoe, it was important to peel the bark in “one continuous sheet, usually in late spring or early summer when the actively dividing cambium causes the bark to loosen.” “ The selection and peeling of trees often was a family affair accompanied by a religious ceremony during which the spirits of the forest were offered thanks and asked to provide protection and strength.” The Anishinabeg would then roll up the peeled bark inside out.The inner side is the waterproof side that was in contact with the water when canoeing.Because of its horizontal grain, the bark would not split lengthwise and could be sewn together if need be. Peeled bark was a valuable commodity and was often traded for other goods.
In addition to its use for Shelters and Canoes, Birch was used for making buckets to carry water, kettles to cook food in as well as food storage containers, baskets, plates, winnowing dishes, funnels, utensils and bowls.The wood being hard and highly flammable made great firewood as well as torches and tinder.Birch was used to make various forms of art such as stencils for beadwork, fans and figures.Some people would use the bark to make artwork.They would bite into the bark to make designs with their teeth.Birch was used to make horns for calling Moose and other game.
Medicinally, Birch had a variety of uses by the Anishinabeg . The tree was believed to be immune to Lightning Strikes and was used a Protector.During a storm, people would take shelter under a Birch tree believing it to be incapable of being struck.Birch was used in the making of Medicine Rattles;long cylinders made from Birch Bark were covered with the hide of an animal and filled with stones.Hieroglyphics tell us that people recorded medicine lodge rituals, histories, and spiritual teachings on to the outer bark of Birch.
Wintergreen oil was extracted from the twigs and roots of the Birch tree and used to flavor bad tasting medicines and to freshen the air.Taken internally, medicine from the root bark was cooked with maple sugar to make a syrup taken for cramps of the stomach.An infusion of the inner bark was used as an enema and for treating diseases of the blood.
When someone died in the community of the Anishinabe, they were often wrapped in the bark of birch before being buried and covered with more bark.
There is a story, which tells us some historical lore of how the Birch tree got its black marks.It is from the Anishinabe people about Nanobozhoo who was a “heroic creator-magician similar to Paul Bunyan, King Arthur, Odyssius or Rama”. He is big, strong and wise as well as a trickster.A “many faceted character-both good and evil, a rogue and a benefactor, a destroyer and a creator, a simpleton and a hero.He was thought to be the personification of the lives of all sentient things-human, faunal, and floral.
According to native tradition Nanabozhoo invented the birch bark canoe, which he bestowed upon the Anishinabeg many thousands of years ago.The giant built the first chiman in the rocks of Manitoulin Island in the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron.But even more remarkable was Nanobozhoo’s telling influence on the bark of the Paper Birch.The story goes like this:
“One autumn day as Nanabozhoo passed through the forest he became very hungry.Soon he noticed a fat black bear shuffling toward him.”It goes on to tell how Nanabozhoo kills the bear and roasts the meat to perfection.He gets ready to eat the bear himself“As he was about to take his first mouthful, he heard a strange sound coming from some nearby white birch trees.‘Greedy fellow, greedy fellow!’ the trees seemed to say as they swayed in the wind.Nanabozhoo thought the birches were scolding him for keeping the feast to himself-usually such a large prize was shared among the people.Offended by the rebuke, the giant shouted at the trees to stop.But they continued to creak out their message on the wind.Now in rage, Nanabozhoo leapt from his feast and climbed the nearest birch to the spot where it and a neighboring tree were rubbing together, making the sound.By pulling the trees apart he thought he could squelch their rebuking cry.But even his great strength could not quiet them.Just then a strong gust of wind shook the trees, and as they and the big man thrashed about Nanabozhoo’s hand got stuck tight between the trees.Nothing he did could loose the vise-like qrip.
Meanwhile, a pack of wolves finds the meat.They see Nanabozhoo in the tree and decide to pretend they don’t because they are afraid that he would feel embarrassed.They proceed to eat all of the meat.Up in the tree…”At last a monumental exertion fueled by his extreme anger freed Nanabozhoo from the tree’s grip, and he scrambled down.Nothing was left of his meal but the bear’s well-gnawed bones.Infuriated, he tore some boughs off a nearby willow tree and made a great whip.With it he lashed out with all his strength at the trunks of the birches that had held him prisoner, creating many wounds.When his wrath at last was dissipated, he sulked off to ponder his misfortune.
Until that day the bark of the birch tree had been a pure, unblemished white, by far the most beautiful of any tree in the northern forest.But Nanabozhoo’s whipping left many wounds, black stripes and scars that the tree carried with it forever after.Nanabozhoo had once again left his mark on the world, this time a mark of anger.”
This is an interesting story that gives a bit of insight to the culture of the Anishinabe; their dislike for greed and possibly their trust that Birch is a wise tree and can assist humans to live a humane life.
The interior people of the Northwest valued Paper Birch the way the coastal people valued the Western Red Cedar.Similarly to the Anishinabeg, they used Birch to make Canoes, baskets and fuel.They also used the sap and inner bark as emergency food. The Nlaka’pmx people of the Northwest used Birch Sap as a tonic.The Secwepemc people also from the Northwest used Birch leaves to make soap and shampoo.
The Birch tree was also important to people who lived in what is now Europe.The Druids often called the Birch tree “Lady of the Woods” because they believed it to be beautiful and graceful.Being the first tree to bud and leaf out each spring, the Birch to the Druids represented “renewal, rebirth and inception.” It also represented cleanliness and purity and was appreciated for its strength and flexibility in the places it inhabited.It was used for making cloth and cradles, broomsticks and parchment. Witches utilized Birch by bundling Birch twigs and binding them with Ash to make their broomsticks.They also used Birch to treat skin conditions and depression as well as to ease sore muscles. Spiritually speaking, the Birch was given to couples just after being married to ensure fertility and was often used as the pole for a Maypole.It was hung over the cradles of babies to protect infants from the “glamour of the Little People.”
People born between December 24th and January 20th in the Celtic Zodiac are said to be under the sign and spirit of The Birch.The Celts believed that the human race originated from trees, with each tree holding its own mystical qualities.The trees were thought to be spirits from the Sun and the Sun was a symbol of the Supreme Being.The trees were considered “living entities, possessed with Infinite Knowledge and wisdom…symbolically representative of the Cycle of Life, Death and Renewal.”
In Wales, the Birch was and still is a “tree of love” and is wreaths of Birch were and still are woven as love tokens.
“A Swedish archaeologist found what could be the world’s oldest second-hand chewing gum: 9,000 –year-old wads of chewed birch resin on the floor of a hut thought to have been inhabited by Stone-Age hunter-gatherers.” It is thought that the “gum” may have been used medicinally as modern scientists have found that the birch resins contain zylitol, which is currently sold as a natural tooth cleaner. The resin also contains terpenes, which may have induced a buzz.Athabaskan Natives have been known to chew Birch resin the way that Andean people chew Coco leaves.
A 5,300-year-old mummified body of a man in the Alps was found with Piptoporus betulinus, or Birch fungus.It is thought that the man was carrying this to aid him from intestinal parasites as he traveled.
Many people throughout the Northern Latitudes have produced beverages from Birch sap.Birch Beer and Birch Wine were enjoyed by many people throughout history as well. Birch bark is one of the ingredients of the historical and modern day Root Beer.The “beer”, like other sodas, was originally designed as a tonic to bring about great health.Being both sweet and bitter, the “beer” was rejuvenating to the digestive system as well as other systems of the body as well a nourishing.It wasn’t until later that the bitters were replaced by more sweets and eventually came to be in a base of corn syrup and process sugar with synthetic flavors and preservatives.Most modern day Root Beers and Birch Beers are not tonic at all; in fact they are detrimental to health.
The Birch Tree has been historically a very important tree.It is quite possible that the lives of the indigenous people of this content would have been quite a bit more difficult physically, spiritually and medicinally, without the presence of such a magnificent tree.