The History of the Birch

Overview

Between 35 and 40 species of birch trees (Betula genus) are found throughout the northern hemisphere, mainly in North America and Asia. Botanically they are related to alders, hornbeams and hazels, all of which produce similar catkins or male flowers. Birches are deciduous with distinctive white, silver, pinkish or reddish bark. In some species, the bark exfoliates or peels. Birches have a long history, with fossil evidence of birch-like plants dating back to the Cretaceous period, between 145 and 65 million years ago.

History: Literary References

Birch has been a favorite of poets. Nineteenth century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to the "weeping birch" as "the most beautiful of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods ..." in his poem "The Picture or The Lover's Resolution." Longfellow alludes to Indians painting on birch bark in his "Song of Hiawatha," published in 1855. Robert Frost wrote an entire poem about the tree. Titled "Birches," it was published in 1916, and ends with the line, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." Presumably he was referring to the white birch, Betula papyrifera, which is common in Frost's native New England and is also the state tree of New Hampshire

History: Native Americans

Native Americans in the northeast used birch as a surface upon which to paint images. They crafted the bark into canoe skins and used it to cover dwellings. The trees were tapped for their sweet sap, which was used in cooking and medicine. The wood was turned into utensils of all kinds. Pieces of bark also made excellent fire starters.

Historical Uses: Europe

Wood of the European white birch has long been used for construction and roofing, including thatching. The bark, known for its excellent insulation properties, was and is used to line the insides of traditional Finnish saunas. Oil of birch tar, derived from the bark, was historically used in tanning and was a major product in Russia and other northern countries. The sap was combined with a variety of ingredients to make birch wine.

Birch Lumber: Historical Uses

Birch has been used to make paper products, including newsprint, corrugated material and books, for centuries. The lumber has been used for the construction of furniture, flooring (including traditional birchwood basketball courts), doors, children's toys, handles and implements.

Medicinal Use

Before the development of synthetic flavors and fragrances, sweet birch or Betula lenta was a primary source of oil of wintergreen. Teas brewed from the leaves have long been used to treat rheumatism, dropsy, gout and kidney stones. Medications compounded from birch bark were prescribed for fevers. Applied externally, a bark decoction was used to treat skin ailments, especially eczema. The vernal or spring sap was consumed as a diuretic.

Keywords: betula history, birch history, birch facts

About this Author

Elisabeth Ginsburg, a writer with twenty years' experience, earned an M.A. from Northwestern University and has done advanced study in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her work has been published in the "New York Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Horticulture Magazine" and other national and regional publications.