Uisge Beatha, Life Water: The Birch

“O birch, smooth and blessed, thou melodious, proud one, delightful each entwining branch in the top of thy crown.”

Author unknown, Buile Suibhne, 1629

The Silver Birch or Betula pendula and Downy Birch or Betula pubescens are also called European white birch, silver birch, moor birch or hairy birch. It’s called beith or beith gheal for silver birch in Gaeilge and beithe in Scots Gaelic. The word birch is thought to have originated from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning ‘a tree whose bark is used to write upon’. The birch is a host plant to quite a few moth caterpillars including the well known Emperor Moth and upwards of over 35 other species as well as over 100 species of other insects. I find the birch to be an absolutely fascinating and beautiful tree. The entire experience in their presence feels Otherworldly in feeling their soft bark, gentle demeanor and wise eyes. 

Their energy quickly dissolves whatever human ailments we’re experiencing and I feel genuinely able to rest and relax in their company. The entire look of the tree draws me in from the bark and the shape of the trees to the leaves. Birches tend to thrive along coastlines or other areas with harsh winds, due to their ability to withstand the wind and bend when many other trees would break. In regards to traditional medicine, usually the sap or the leaves were used, typically as a tonic wine, which is essentially a tincture that was popular in both the Scottish highlands and England. In Ireland, the birch was used to treat skin ailments1, particularly eczema.2,3 Irish herbalist, John K’Eogh said of birch that “The liquid that is drained off this tree in the springtime is good for dispelling urinary disorders, like stones, pains and bleeding. A decoction of the leaves, when drunk is considered good for scurvy.” In Wales, Birch was recommended for impotence.4 

In Irish Brehon Law, the birch was considered a ‘common’ tree and that it was illegal to cut stems off of birches or the offender would need to pay recompense of a cow. …Most oppressive of it all is the penalty of the seven commoners of the forest for each of which there is a cow as payment: the stem cutting of the birch, the peril of the alder, the undermining of the willow. Birch was the first tree of the Ogham and likely used to write on as the bark is somewhat soft and bendable. Hair rinses of infusions of birch, vinegar, herbs and flowers were sometimes used to cleanse hair.3 

A cloimh-chat or catkin was created in Scotland which was the intertwining of the wool from birch, beech and willow and possibly other trees. The wool was twined into a three-plied cord, representative of the trinity and placed in a circle underneath a cow while being milked or the milk itself to protect it from negative forces.4 Another poem from the Carmina Gadelica suggests birch’s use for arrows that says “Bow of the yew of Easragan, Silk of Gallvinn, Arrow of the birch of Doire-donn, Feather of the eagle of Loch Treig”. In all reality, the birch likely had many uses from a wood perspective and it worked perfectly for baskets, barrels, shoes, cradles, crosses, wands and brooms among many other common items to be sure. It was also used for tanning purposes. 

Broomsticks made of birch were often used to sweep out the bad spirits left over from the year, particularly during the time around Samhain. The soft birch tops may have also been used in bedding. In the legend of Diarmaid and Gráinne, Diarmaid prepared a bed for his lover out of birch tops and rushes. A ‘slachtan Bride’ or ‘birch of Bride’ wand was used as part of Imbolc traditions in Scotland and it was said that a similar rod was given to kings in Ireland or Lords of the Isles during their coronation. The rod or wand was typically straight and white to symbolize justice, peace and purity.5 The Welsh Myrddin or more commonly known, Merlin, sang of the ‘blessed birch’ in his poem The Birch Trees from the Black Book of Carmarthen XVI. The birch may have been somewhat viewed unanimously throughout the isles as a symbol of spring, love, fertility, birth, re-birth (after death), children and put to use in celebrations involving Imbolc, Bealtaine and Samhain. 

In one Scottish tale regarding the headless horseman or ‘Little Head Hugh’, he caught ahold of a man by the name of Maclean on the Isle of Mull in an effort to take him to hell. Maclean managed to grasp a birch branch and hang on until the morning light, narrowly escaping death. The birch tree survived the ordeal as well but was left partially uprooted and twisted. Similar tales regarding the horseman were often told to explain unique tree formations.6 The Birch has a symbiotic relationship with Fly agaric or Amanita muscaria, an esteemed and well known hallucinogenic mushroom that was likely used by the druids in a similar fashion as it was used by the Yakut shamans in Siberia. 

The beloved mushroom commonly grows around birch trees due to the acidic soil conditions the tree creates. Yakut shamans were said to be buried near or under birch trees and would often climb a birch tree during trance indicating they were making their ascent into the realm of the gods. In the richly decorated Celtic burial chamber known as the ‘Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave’ in Germany, a man of great status was buried wearing a hat made of birch, dated to approximately 530 BCE during the Hallstatt culture. Archaeology reveals that Europeans have been working with birch reaching back as far as paleolithic times when the tree was used to make ‘birch tar’, a substance commonly used to waterproof vessels or to repair weapons or jewelry. In essence, birch was used to make one of the first glue-like materials and the use of Birch in this way continued in Britain until at least the 5th century. Birch Beer is made from the fermented sap of the tree. In Scotland, whiskey was made from the birch tree as well and called ‘uisge beatha’ or life water.7 

The Silver and Downy Birch are in the Betulaceae family and native to Europe and parts of Asia but many various species with similar medicinal properties are also native to North America. The leaves are ovate, serrated and pointed, occurring in alternating pairs. It produces brown and yellowish catkins that are monoecious, which means the plant has both male and female reproductive parts and is self-pollinating. The female catkins develop in the spring and the male catkins release their pollen around midsummer. You can tell the difference between silver and downy birches because downy birch has hairy leaves while the silver birch’s leaves are hairless. Birch blooms around the spring through early summer and may have been associated with Imbolc, the spring equinox or Bealtaine. 

The birch is a deciduous tree hardy to zones 4 through 9. The birch tree has a particularly slender trunk that bends easily which makes it well adapted for windy terrain, can grow up to 25 m or 82 ft tall and lives on average 50 to 150 years old. Birch is a relatively hardy plant but grows best in moist well-drained soil in sun to part-shade. Birch’s energy is bitter and drying. The leaves, sap and bark are all edible and taste bitter. It’s most commonly used as a tincture, decoction, infusion or poultice. The sap is more of a diuretic than the bark while the bark and leaves are more astringent. The sap as well as the young leaves and bark should typically be harvested in the spring. Bark should only be removed that is loose and it can just as easily be taken off of fallen trees at no expense medicinally. 


analgesic, anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anticancer and antitumor, antifungal, antiviral, diaphoretic, diuretic, hair tonic, skin tonic, vulnerary 


Birch Beer

Ingredients:  8 oz. or 1 cup of birch sap, 30 oz. or 3 1/2 cups of water, 2 oz. or 1/4 cup of wine yeast, 1 quart mason jar, mason jar fermentation lid

Instructions: Pour the birch syrup in your mason jar. Bring water to a boil and add to the jar. Dissolve the yeast in three tablespoons of water and add it to the mixture after the syrup has cooled to room temperature. Cap with a mason jar fermentation lid and allow the jar to ferment for 2 – 3 weeks until visible fermentation has ceased. Carefully pour the birch beer into another container leaving any sediment behind. Allow it to age an additional 2 – 3 weeks before drinking.


1.  Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0945, Page 139

2. Allen, David and Hatfield, Gabrielle, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, Timber Press, 2004, pg. 88.

3. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0710, Page 047

4. Myddvai, Meddygon, Pughe, John and Williams, John, The Physicians of Myddvai, Wales, 1861.

5. Walkley, Victor, Celtic Daily Life, Robinson, 1998, p. 71.

6. Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2, Scotland, 1900, pg. 246.

7. Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Scotland, 1928, pg. 168.

8. Campbell, John Gregorson, Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, AlbaCraft Publishing, 2012 ch. 3.

9.Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2, Scotland, 1900, pg. 330.

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