On May Day in Herefordshire and surrounding English counties, young birch trees dressed in red and white ribbons were propped against stable doors. They averted bad luck and protected horses from being “hag-ridden” – stolen by witches for midnight rides.
Conversely, birch was a preferred wood for a witch’s broomstick. Its twigs were also used to beat the bounds of the parish at Rogationtide (days of prayer and fasting in Western Christianity), thrash delinquents and drive out the Old Year on Dec. 31.
The renowned British horticulturalist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll reported finding birch boot scrapers anchored at cottage doors – neatly combining practicality with witch deterrence.
Birch twigs were hung over cottage doors, seedbeds, pigsties and cradles. They also adorned the good wife’s kneading trough to guard against heavy bread. With the advent of Christianity, the twigs were fashioned into the shape of a cross.
It is believed that no one has ever been struck by lightning while sheltering under a birch. The twigs can be made into brooms, but never at Christmas time.
In Wales, village boys set a birch broom across the threshold of a bride’s new home. To enter, she and her new husband had to “jump the broom.” This tradition migrated to the American South and was practiced among slaves as a ritual form of marriage.
Gathered in early spring, birch sap is sweet and can be made into wine. The bark of “Betula papyrifera,” thin and lightly absorbent, can be made into paper if peeled and dried flat.
Many a midnight rambler frightened by a ghost has been fooled by a silver birch glowing in the moonlight.
In Russia, the birch was used in a ritual to summon a forest demon, Leshtii. Saplings were arranged pointing toward the center of a circle. The demon would appear on a stump. Kissing its hand, they would recite: “Uncle Leshtii, ascend thou, not as a grey wolf, not as ardent fire, but as resembling myself.” It then assumed human form and became the servant of the summoner.
The traditional yule log was cut from a birch. At Beltane, the Irish festival where household fires would be doused and then re-lit from one central fire, birch twigs were used to carry the flame.
In the Druidic Ogham Calendar, the birch rules the lunar cycle from Dec. 24 to Jan. 20. One of the seven sacred Celtic trees, it symbolizes beginning anew and overcoming difficulties.
We’ve all had a rough couple of years. A toast to the birch: here’s to new beginnings in 2022.
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.