Birch trees grow in Northern Europe, Russia, Asia, North America, Iceland and Greenland. Often found in areas where glaciers of the last Ice Age have scraped the ground bare, birches can live in bleak conditions, and though they don't often live more than 80 years, they multiply quickly. According to "Lives of the Trees, An Uncommon History" by Diana Wells, a single birch catkin contains about 5.5 million grains of pollen. People have used birches for many reasons for hundreds of years.
When people think of pouring syrup on their pancakes or waffles, they most likely imagine maple syrup, but birch syrup also exists and is quite tasty. Birch sap is tapped from birch trees similar to maple trees and boiled down to make the syrup. The few companies that produce this syrup transform the sap into light, medium, or dark consistencies. According to Kahiltna Birchworks, 1 gallon of syrup requires 100 gallons of sap. Birch beer is another product that comes from distilling birch sap. People also used the buds, leaves and bark of the birch for food long before the invention of writing.
Basketry and Writing
Artisans have used strips of birch bark to weave baskets for years in many countries, and birch wood can also become paper. Some species of birch, such as the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) have light, smooth bark that curls off in papery strips. Because of this quality, the bark often invites inscription and, according to Diana Wells, author of "Lives of the Trees, An Uncommon History," the trees' name derives from the Sanskrit "bhurg," meaning "a tree for writing upon." President Jefferson recommended birch bark paper to explorer Meriwether Lewis for copying field notes because the paper remains more reliable in damp conditions than regular paper.
North American Indians, such as the Hiawatha, built strong and light canoes from the bark of the paper birch (also called the canoe birch). They sewed the strong pieces of smooth bark together with fibrous roots so that the silver outer bark sat on the inside of the canoe, while the yellow inner bark faced out to the water. Native Americans also built babies' cradles from birch bark in a similar manner and thought them to have magical qualities that would protect the baby from evil spirits. Modern woodworkers also use birch to build cabinetry and furniture.
In Traditions and Play
According to tree expert Nalini M. Nadkarni, author of the book "Between Earth and Sky, Our Intimate Connection to Trees," tradition in the United Kingdom, Austria, Hungary, Sweden and Finland, called for the use of the birch as a maypole for the custom known as May Day or Beltane. Revelers festooned these poles with flowers and greenery and danced around them to celebrate fertility and springtime. In the New Year, birches also became brooms to sweep out the old, bad events of the previous year. Birches, because of their flexibility have also served as a favorite for children at play. As the poet Robert Frost wrote, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."