As we move through October, it’s difficult not to notice the ‘Trick or Treat’ costumes filling the shelves. It’s a popular festival that at first sight appears to be a recent arrival however, if we scrape away at the gifts with their spooky undertones we find much older beliefs.
Halloween, the Christian festival of All Hallows’ Eve, and All Saints’ Day (31st October – 1st November) remembers and gives thanks for the Saints and the souls of the dead. Its date coincides with the Celtic festival of Samhain that marked the beginning of winter; a period when the boundary between the living and the dead was narrow and blurred.
So, what’s that got to do with Birch trees?
Birch is one of the pioneer species, and in Fingle Woods it is one of the first to grow in areas that have been cleared, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the Birch, which is also known as ‘The Lady of the Woods’ was a symbol of purification, fertility and renewal in Celtic mythology.
Traditionally bundles of birch tied together to make besom brooms; like the ones we use to sweep up leaves in our gardens, were used during Samhain to brush away the spirits of the old year and to mark the boundary of the purified homes. It’s a custom that has echoes in ‘beating the bounds’ ceremonies that are still practiced in some local parishes, where bundles of birch or willow are used to beat the boundaries of the parish land.
Besom brooms are the traditional image of a witch’s broom, and sometimes Birch develops dense clusters of twigs that according to folklore were brooms caught in the trees. The distortion is caused by Taphrina betulina, a fungal infection that makes the tree grow multiple lateral buds that form dense clusters of twigs, known as Witch’s Broom.
Another linkage is with the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which is frequently found growing near Birch. Whilst this scarlet or orange mushroom with white spots looks beautiful it can cause nausea and blurred vision and has been used by Shamans to talk to spirits. Perhaps that’s why the witches’ brooms got caught in the Birch trees!
A less savoury aspect of purification was the idea of driving out evil to ‘cleanse’ someone and ‘birching’; beating someone with a ‘birch rod’ (a bundle of twigs) was used as a form of corporeal punishment for offenders and prisoners. Locally, the Western Times reported that a 12-year old boy from Buckfastleigh was sentenced to twelves strokes for stealing items worth two shillings at the Newton Abbot Assizes on January 10th, 1879 and the Devon and Exeter Express, reported that two prisoners had been ‘birched’ for assaulting wardens in Princetown Prison on 17th August 1908.
On a more cheerful note, Birch was associated with protection and fertility, and in the Scottish Highlands it was believed that if you led a barren cow with a birch stick she would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would have a healthy calf. Young couples were also given birch twigs to ensure the birth of healthy children, and traditionally cradles were made from birch wood to prevent babies from being stolen by mischievous spirits.
Another reason why Birch may be associated with purification is the wide range of traditional medicinal uses that can be made from the tree. Birch tea made from the leaves, acts as a diuretic and can be used as a remedy for kidney and urinary tract infections and was also used to relieve rheumatism and gout. The inner and outer bark have a range of antibacterial and astringent properties and can be used as an oil to treat wounds; as a pain reliever that eases muscular pain and arthritis and added to a bath it helps sooth skin rashes.
The tree can also be tapped for sap in late winter and early spring, and because it is high in sugar and vitamin C it can be drunk as birch water, fermented to make wine or beer, and used as a vinegar or syrup.
By Jane Halliday, pictures from the Woodland Trust Media Library.
You can find further information about the uses and folklore associated with Birch trees in the following publications and websites:
G Kindred: The Sacred Tree 2003 ISBN: 978-0-9532227-5-9