The changing of the seasons is the most magical time of the year. As we gently say goodbye to Spring and hello to Summer which starts on the 21st of June we notice little signs that the ‘Hunger Gap’ will soon be over, giving way to the ‘Time of Plenty’.
We’ve filled our foraging basket with wild garlic, young nettle leaves and plenty of blossoms and dandelions. We've started to notice new seasonal British produce - spring onions, jerusalem artichokes and asparagus at the greengrocers. A true sign that the ‘Time of Plenty’ is on it’s way.
Nature is giving us clues too. Silver Birch is one of the earliest of the deciduous trees to grow leaves in the springtime. It’s no coincidence that it’s steeped in folklore pertaining to new beginnings, renewal and purification. It’s cemented in myth and legend throughout history.
In Norse mythology Birch was sacred to Frigge and Freya, Goddesses of Motherhood, Love and Fertility.
The ancient Greco-Romans paired the Birch tree with Aphrodite/Venus, the Goddess of Love.
The Anglo-Saxons with Eoistre (aka Easter), the Goddess of Springtime and renewal.
The Celtic celebration of Beltane, or Mayday, would be celebrated with fires of Birchwood, and a Birch tree making a living May Pole to celebrate new beginnings.
In the Highlands of Scotland it was believed that if you herded a barren cow with a staff made of birch, she would become fertile harking back to their Nordic roots.
Birch’s importance continues throughout the seasons. The Gealic New Year, or Samhain, marking the end of harvest and the start of the ‘dark-half’ of the year survives today as Halloween. Not only where Birch bonfires lit, but bundles of birch twigs were used in a ceremony called Beating the Bounds.
The twigs were tied together, often around a long pole used as a handle and folk would sweep away bad luck and evil spirits. With the advent of Christianity, the image of a birch broom was flipped and became the very symbol of Devil Worship and Witchcraft - the Witches Broom.
Not only was Birch full of magic, it was a very useful wood too. Being tough, heavy and straight grained, it was a fantastic general building material. Integral in weaving, making things like bobbins, spools and reels.
It was so important that many place names still pay homage to the magnificent tree. Birkenhead, Birkhall and Berkhamsted all derive their names from Birch.
In the highlands of Scotland, places like the Glen of Beithe also carry the moniker. The wood would be used as a fuel in the Whisky distillation process and to smoke ham and fish.
The bark was used in the tanning industry, to make rope and even as a makeshift candle. The Sap can be tapped and brewed into a wine which is said to help with kidney stones, rheumatism and gout, or rubbed on the skin to relieve rashes.
The leaves have antiseptic and diuretic properties, meaning that they were used to treat urinary tract infections. It is also said that they are good for digestion and immunity, they are high in vitamin C, so there may be some truth to this.
Our ancestors would have made ‘tea’ of the young leaves and bark. I have created a delicious Birch Leaf Crisp recipe for you to try.
Don't believe how tasty they can be? Imogen’s octogenarian uncle was perplexed to see me picking birch leaves when he requested crisps. He shook his head as he watched me fry them in the pan. His face soon turned to glee when he tasted one. His eyes wide in childlike excitement.
He said he couldn’t wait to tell his friends and watch their bemusement as he collects Silver Birch in the London parks.
They are also a huge hit with our three year old Xanthe who is now four and still loves them. She loves picking them and sprinkling them with her choice of flavours fresh from the pan.
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Birch Leaf Crisps
Birch leaves start to appear in March, but probably won’t be big enough to eat until April. By the end of June they will start to get darker green and become bitter. So this is a great recipe to create between April and the end of June. Though of course the seasons aren't set in stone!