Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sweet Birch: The Green Man in Spring

Birch is the youthful Green Man in spring, sweet sap rising fervently.

Birch is Beith, the first letter of the Celtic Ogham alphabet, marking renwal and beginnings. In the medieval Irish Word Ogham of CĂș Chulainn , Beith is associated with the phrase "Maise malach" -- "Beauty of the eyebrow." In facial diagnosis, thick eyebrows indicate vitality and fertility.

There is a lusty fertility to young birches -- one of the first trees to come back after a fire or a clearcut, shortly after the Quaking Aspen. But their virility is not strictly heterosexual -- in far northern climes birches reproduce without pollination.

Birch saplings's bodies are marked by the lithe, supple, androgynous strength and grace of adolescence.

But to me there is also an urgency to the energy of young birches that reminds me of boys at the edge of manhood and men just past boyhood.

So its fitting that Darcey and I should venture out on Easter Sunday, the first warm Sunday in spring, to gather Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) twigs and buds in Robin Hood Park.

The sun was shining brightly, and the trees along the path were mirrored in the still waters of vernal pools where frogs and salamanders bred.

At the top of a hill ringed by White Pine, Sweet Birch saplings sprouted up between ancient glacial erratics.

The new growth on the saplings was red -- hinting at the way the tree's medicine stirs and cleans the blood in springtime.

The buds have a marked stimulant action and are somewhat warming -- after eating several I felt alert, energized, and slightly aroused, in part I think because of the medicine's tendency to move blood to the periphery..

The instant welling up of copious clear, thin, sweet sap wherever we cut off a twig suggested the way in which the tree's medicine moves fluids up and out -- both as a blood mover and as a diuretic.

This tendency may also explain the marked expectorant action I felt a few minutes after first tasting the buds -- something not accounted for in any of the sources I've read. The expectoration was surprisingly gentle for such a stimulating medicine -- just a single gentle cough that cleared my bronchi and throat.

The sweetness of the Birch masks its astringency -- delayed but pronounced.

There is a seeming paradox in the fact that this stimulating medicine is also a potent analgesic -- birches have abundant methyl salicylate. Doubly paradoxical because while the overall medicine of the tree is warming, methyl salicylate is cooling. Herein lies the tree's poison as well. Think of the adolescent romanticization of death as a warm sleep without pain.

In its own death, like the mythic Summer King, the Sweet Birch gives life. As Birches near the end of their life cycle, they become host to Chaga, a fungus with powerful immune modulating and adaptogenic qualities that may help the body fight some cancers, particularly those associated with radiation. (Chaga is abundant near Chernobyl.) And when they finally die and lay down their bodies, Birches enrich and sweeten the soil so that it will nourish the Maples and Oaks and Hemlocks that have sprouted in the shade of the Birch grove.

As much a sign of renewal in its dying as its birth, Sweet Birch connects us to the wild fecundity of the forest, the ecstatic desire of life to burst forth wherever a new opening is made.