Stands a birch-tree white,
Under snow in winter
Gleaming silver bright.
– Sergei Yesenin, from БЕРЕЗА (The Birch-Tree)
I have always been fascinated by how certain trees manage to capture the imagination and emotion of disparate cultures. Betula pendula (silver birch or European white birch) is an example of which I am particularly fond. Native from Western Europe to Central and East Asia, the silver birch is renowned throughout its range for its smooth white bark (which grows darker and rougher with age) and gracefully hanging branches. A fast growing pioneer species, it rapidly populates areas that have been cleared or burned, creating dense and often mesmerizing stands with individuals reaching up to 80 feet in height.
Perhaps as a result of these characteristics—which can lend a quiet and mysterious aspect to the forests they inhabit—the species provides inspiration and symbolism for many cultures. A beloved icon throughout Eastern and Northern Europe, the silver birch permeates the regions’ mythology, literature, and poetry. Sergei Yesenin’s poem, “The Birch-Tree” (quoted above), is learned and memorized by Russian schoolchildren while the silver birch or its cultivars represents Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Belarus, among others, as an official or unofficial national tree. Eastern European peasants made writing material, baskets, and shoes from silver birch bark, and Leo Tolstoy’s favorite bench was made from silver birch logs.
My personal favorite regional association with B. pendula comes from my time working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, where the silver birch is bound with the month of March and, historically, with the birth of a new year. In Ukraine, the silver birch is synonymous with spring. The Ukrainian word for the month of March (березень) even translates to something like “of the birch” and indicates the time of year when birch sap begins to flow. This was an important period in the calendars of early Ukrainian peoples, many of whom celebrated the beginning of a new year in late March or early April, often on the spring solstice. The early flowing sap of the silver birch may have served as a symbol of new life, of the renewal of the world after the long, hard winter.*
Traditions in Ukraine honor this connection between the silver birch and life. Ancient Ukrainian cultures associated the silver birch with fertility, purity, healing, and powerful spirits (both good and bad). Planting silver birch around a house was believed to protect inhabitants from harm, while walking through a silver birch grove was thought to bestow good luck and health. To this day, many Ukrainians continue to attribute curative powers to birch products.
For example, березовий сік (silver birch juice) remains a popular, seasonal Ukrainian drink, believed to contain healing properties. For rural Ukrainians, tapped and preserved birch juice serves as a valuable source of vitamins and nutrients for warding off illness. I remember meeting men on the road in late March as they went to the forest to tap silver birches. The sap of tapped trees could be observed dripping down twigs to fill plastic soda bottles. Although silver birch sap can be drunk straight from the tree, tappers often bottled and sold the sap at the town bazaar. For me, seeing elderly babas (Ukrainian for “grandmother”) with bottles of fresh birch juice was the surest indication that spring had finally arrived.
Although winter has seemingly not let go of us yet, the five specimens of Betula pendula at the Arboretum (not including cultivars) are, like their Ukrainian counterparts, living testament to spring’s arrival. Located in our beautiful Birch Collection on Bussey Hill, their buds indicate that sap is flowing, that March remains the month of the birch, and that the collection as a whole is priming itself for the warm growing season to come. Believe it or not, spring is here, and, for the silver birch at least, a new year of rejuvenation and growth has already begun.
*During the ancient New Year celebrations in March and April, Ukrainian peoples celebrated by visiting one another and singing carols. One of these carols—known as “Carol of the Bells” in the United States—has become a winter holiday classic, a slightly ironic fact given its original meaning. While the music for “Carol of the Bells” matches nearly note-for-note the early twentieth century arrangement of the Ukrainian folk song Shchedryk, the original Ukrainian lyrics refer not to bells but rather the awaiting bounty of the growing season to come.