Birkheads Wild – meaning, origins and mythology…and why we love silver birch trees

Birkheads means “the birch on top of the hill”

Our little hamlet, hidden in a corner of Gateshead, right on the border with County Durham is called Birkheads – and yes, we are on top of a hill with several silver birch growing around us. Further along Birkheads Lane about half a mile from here, is a small woodland of mature Silver Birch which looks stunning from the road when the evening sun shines through the trees from the west. See if you can spot it next time you are up this way. Locally this area is often called ‘Silverhills’ and there are several references to that name on houses and businesses nearby. So, a big local connection with Silver Birch trees then!

We heart Silver Birch

Silver Birch is one of our favourite trees, the white bark slashed with black is so striking and is easy to identify as well as being one of the best trees for bushcraft in the UK– we often collect the bark and fallen twigs around the site for use in our firefighting workshops. Youth Groups who have visited us this year have helped plant 10 new Silver Birch saplings so that we can increase the numbers of this beautiful and resourceful tree for future generations.

Here’s some interesting stuff on the mythology surrounding Silver Birch which only makes us love it more…

  • An ancient and native tree – it’s been around since the last ice age and when the glaciers melted the birch tree was one of the first to re-colonise. It’s often first tree to grow on on a site which has been cleared or been burnt and for that reason is known as a “pioneer” species.
  • To our Ancient/Celtic ancestors the birch tree meant “a fresh start” renewal – youth, new beginnings, starting again and purification/cleansing. Birch wood was used in rituals which signified a new start or the start of an endeavour. The lesson of birch helps us focus on “a fresh start” – renewal and purification, and promises new life and love: so if we follow this tradition we should also use the birch to help us focus our attention for change and new directions.
  • Until a few hundred years ago people were still “birched” to drive out evil spirits! Baby’s cradles were traditionally made of birch – the symbol of new beginnings and protection.
  • Birch/Beithe  “Bey”  (Beth) is first tree of the Ogham – the Celtic Tree alphabet. Our Celtic ancestors celebrated with birch at two festivals a year:
    1. Samhain (Sah-win) – now Halloween – the start of the Celtic year when purification was important. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. Birch is traditionally used to make besoms (broomsticks) which gardeners use to purify gardens by sweeping out old leaves, and of course for witches  (who perhaps went on a shamanic flight after eating fly agaric mushrooms commonly found in birch wood!). Birch twigs in a besom swept away any unwanted influences and negative energy.
    2. Beltane – 1 May /May bank hol – the birch is also connected to fertility. Thousands of years ago we would light fires of birch and oak to celebrate and the May pole was birch. The birch is one of the first trees to leaf  so it is an obvious choice to represent  spring. The Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre (Easter) was celebrated around and through the birch tree.

To me, the Silver Birch tree represents a teenage girl/woman and I think has some great wisdom to pass on to teenage women – here’s why…

  • In mythology the Silver Birch takes a female form – it’s ancient name is “Graceful Lady of the Woods”. It appears fragile and delicate but it is extremely hardy –  it teaches us that in apparent weakness there is often to be found great strength.
  • Ancient wisdom taught that birch wood aided the calming of emotions and that looking at silver birch aided depression –  it provided light in the darkness and is lit up by the moon.
  • The ancient lesson of Silver Birch as “a fresh start” – new beginnings in life as an adult, new choices, leaving childhood behind and the promise of new life and love.
  • And finally…see also ‘Uses’ below – Silver Birch leaves can help ease acne!

Silver Birch and Fairy Folk:

  •  The Scottish fairy – Ghillie Dhu was a solitary male fairy who lived in a birch tree. He was a bit wild but loved children. He has dark hair and is clothed in leaves and moss.
  • Aos si – “ace she” are the “good neighbours”, “the fair folk” or just “the folk”. The most special times of day to them are are dawn and dusk and the festivals of Samhain, Beltane and midsummer. The folk live in mounds underground perhaps this is why the Birkheads Fairy Folk moved in just down the track from Birkheads Wild … come and see if you can find them…

Uses for Silver Birch:

  • Leaves are antiseptic –  and make a good soap and tea. Leaves can be made into cream to ease acne and zits.
  • Bark – put onto sore muscles can relieve pain and to relieve burns.
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