Fire by hand drill

Fire by hand drill

Thursday, 12 April 2012

An Irish Arboriginal

This is an article i wrote recently. I thought i would stick it up here for you to read. I hope you enjoy it. There were pictures too but they have been lost in the sands of time.

An Irish Arboriginal
A profile of Betula pendula
Scientific classification
: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Fagales
Family: Betulaceae
Genus: Betula
Subgenus: Betula
Species: B. pendula

Betula pendula

My dad grew up watching cowboy and Indian movies and when his little group of friends recreated what they had seen he liked to be an Indian.

He was fascinated with how the Indians existed in balance with their surroundings using what nature provided. Over the years he picked up all sorts of strange and interesting information which I delighted in hearing. This is where my interest in bushcraft started.

One of his favourite trees and therefore one of mine is the Silver Birch.

The Silver Birch has many common names including:- Common birch, Weeping birch, European white birch, Lady of the woods, Lady birch,  Warty birch, and white birch. In old Irish it is called Beith or Begh in modern Irish. Beith is also the representation of B in the ancient Irish alphabet. Other letters were represented by other trees or plants.

In ancient Ireland trees were so sacred there was a law to protect them from harm. Trees were divided into 4 groups. Nobles of the wood, commoners of the wood, lower divisions of the wood and bushes of the wood. To knowingly destroy an Oak or Yew tree, nobles, was like killing a person and punishable as such. Birch was classed as a commoner but even then if a person killed one they might be fined as much as a cow! Perhaps this is a system that should be tried instead of the current Tree preservation order process.

Silver birch grows all over the British Isles and Ireland and was one of the first trees to colonise the land after the ice sheets of the last ice age retreated.

It continues this tradition as a pioneer and quickly colonises open space if allowed too. Silver birch prefers well-drained, drier soils.

Birches can occur within other forest types, such as Pine and Oak woods or as monoculture stands in which they are the predominant trees.

B. pendula can grow up to 30m tall in ideal conditions and live past 150 years though this is very rare. Below 100 years is normal.

The wood is hard but easily worked and makes great fuel. I have carved many spoons from birch on a cold winters night. Some of which have ended up in my daughters toy kitchen.

The bark is a whitish colour and sheds layers like tissue paper. It gets coarser with age.  Myself and my brother used to gather the peeling bark in bags to use as tinder, which it excelled at, going up like an oily rag and giving off black smoke. We were well warned by dad never to take the living bark as that would damage the tree.

The twigs and young branches are smooth, reddish and shiny and have light lenticels. They then become white as they mature. In early spring if you trim off a ‘little-finger’ sized branch to half way, you can stand under it and allow the sap to drip into your mouth. It is very refreshing.

Birches are deciduous. The new leaves emerge in April and are emerald green at first, with the colour darkening to a duller matt green after a couple of weeks. They are very good to eat at this stage.
In autumn the leaves turn yellow then brown and drop early November.

The leaf of Silver birch is not as round as the very similar downy birch. Silver birch leaves also have a double row of teeth on the leaf margin.

In general, silver birch has an overall drooping habit to its branches which is where its gets it specific species name.

Silver birches are monoecious, meaning that they have both male and female flowers.
They can start flowering as early as 5 years old which is an incredible advantage to the pioneer. The flowers appear at the same time as the new leaves.

The drooping catkins are the males flowers while the upright flowers are female. Pollination occurs via wind power and when pollinated the female catkins ripen and become ready for seed dispersal in the late summer. Each catkin contains hundreds of tiny seeds, each having a set of virtually invisible wings to catch the wind. These seeds can travel considerable distances.

In times of emergency or famine people would collect the birch seeds and grind them for flour. I have done this myself and its tastes so much more nutritious than anything we can buy in the super market so why they used it only in famine is not known.

Birch are known to be deep rooting. They bring nutrients up to make leaves and when these leaves fall in the autumn some of those nutrients are returned. They are therefore beneficial to other flora and fauna in the area and ultimately improve the soil. Birch also benefit from a number of symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza fungi. Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria),  chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and penny bun (Leccinum scabrum) all have mutually beneficial relationships with birch.
Betula pendula is host to the Birch Polypore, Piptoporus betulinus. This is also known as the razor strop fungus and I have often used it for this purpose to strop my knife. The upper skin can be peeled off and is sterile on the inside. It makes a first rate plaster for cuts.

Another fungus which grows on birch is the horses hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius). This fungus has been used for thousands of years in the construction of amadou. Amadou is a piece of fungus treated in such a way as to catch a cold spark from, for example, a piece of flint and iron pyrites. This would have been ancient mans box of matches.

Of course this is only a selection of the other flora which are associated with Silver Birch. To ancient man a Birchwood would have been like a supermarket for materials, food and medicine.
Some people think this tree is a weed due to its pioneering nature but in a way this tree and the resources it provides helped our ancestors survive in a harsh climate and therefore helped build the Britain and Ireland we know today.

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