Spring flowers: Silver Birch from Scottish Plant Lore

  23 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is home to an enormous collection of plants, both native to Scotland and from all corners of the globe. In celebration of both National Poetry Day and the beginning of spring last week, we released a recording of a brand new poem by Alexander McCall Smith, accompanied by a short film shot at the Botanic Gardens. Watch and listen here.

For our Scottish Plant of the Month, we return to the Botanics. Dr Greg Kenicer is a botanist at the Botanic Gardens, and the author of Scottish Plant Lore, which delves into the history and folklore of many of Scotland’s trees and plants. In the below extract, he discusses the silver birch, whose trailing yellow flowers begin to appear in April.

Silver Birch from Scottish Plant Lore

This is undoubtedly one of the most long-used and versatile native plants in Scotland. Stakes made of birch and sharpened with stone axes have been found placed upright in the bottom of pits (thought to be pitfall traps) in the Wigtownshire area. These have been dated to around 2,500 bce. The wood was also used for making the floors of crannog loch-houses, but it was held above the water because it is not particularly resistant to rotting.

In more recent times, the wood was used for fish barrels, wheels, carts, ploughs and, as Lightfoot (1777) puts it, “most of the rustic instruments”. Turners made bowls and other items from the wood, which was also burned as fuel and for charcoal. Smaller branches were used for fencing, and switches as brooms for “the purposes of cleanliness and correction”. During the boom times of the textile industries in Scotland in the industrial revolution, bobbins for spinning were made from birch. Demand was so great that the birch used was both home-grown and imported from Canada and Scandinavia. The ‘outer rind’ (Gaelic: meilleag) was burned as a substitute for candles, and young whippy twigs could be twisted together into strong ropes, an excellent example of which can be seen in the National Museums of Scotland.

In the culinary world, herring and hams were often smoked using birch branches, and the wood was used to keep the fires going when distilling whisky. Thomas Pennant (1774), who travelled with Lightfoot, remarks that “A great deal of excellent wine is extracted from the live tree.” Although there is perhaps a miswording here, because the plant does not ferment the sugars itself, it is certain that birchsap, or ‘birk’ wine was a popular beverage in Scotland. Johnson, writing in 1862 has this to say on taking sap from birch:

From a flourishing tree of moderate size from four to six quarts may be obtained in a single day… The fresh sap as it is extracted from the tree forms a very pleasant drink, and is supposed by the Highlanders to be very beneficial in complaints of the bladder and kidneys.

McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen (1929) gives this recipe for birch wine:

To every gallon of the juice from the birch tree, three pounds of sugar, one pound of raisins, half an ounce of crude tartar, and one ounce of almonds are allowed; the juice, sugar and raisins are to be boiled twenty minutes and then put into a tub, together with the
tartar; and when it has fermented some days, it is to be strained and put into the cask, and also the almonds, which must be tied in a muslin bag. The fermentation having ceased, the almonds are to be withdrawn, and the cask bunged up, to stand for about five months, when it may be fined and bottled. Keep in a cool cellar. Set the bottles upright or they will fly.

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