In ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in The Book of Taliesin we find the following lines about birch putting on armour:
Birch, despite his great intention,
was slow to put on armour,
not because of his cowardice,
but rather because of his greatness.
In this poem the magician-god, Gwydion, enchants 34 species of trees, shrubs, and plants to do battle against the ‘herbage and trees’ and monsters of Annwn.
I assumed birch’s armour was born out of poetic play until I found a passage in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which suggests these lines contain a deeper truth. Wohlleben speaks of how birches are pioneer trees who have developed various ways of defending themselves.
‘They grow quickly, so their trunks get thick fast, and they put on a massive layer of rough outer bark… Not only do browsers break their teeth on the tough bark, but they are also revolted by the taste of its oil-saturated fibres… The white color is because of the active ingredient betulin, its primary component. White reflects sunlight and protects the trunk from sunscald. It also guards the trunk against heating up in the warming rays of the winter sun, which could cause unprotected trees to burst… Betulin also has antiviral and antibacterial properties and is an ingredient in medicines and in many skin care products. What’s really surprising is how much betulin there is in birch bark. A tree that makes its bark primarily out of defensive compounds is a tree that is constantly on the alert… defensive armouring is being thrown up at a breakneck pace everywhere.’
Online research led me to learn that the betulin content in outer birch bark ranges from 10 – 40%. Birch bark has long been used in folk medicine. Native Americans boiled it and pounded it into an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory paste for use on ulcers, cuts, and wounds. Birch bark tar has long been utilised as an antiseptic and is an ingredient in ointments for eczema and psoriasis.
Betulin was ‘first isolated by sublimation from birch bark by Toviasom Lovitz…. In 1788.’ It has been proved to exhibit ‘antiseptic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, and other properties’ and Betulinic acid inhibits the growth of human melanoma and other cancer cells.
Could the ancient bards who passed on the poems attributed to Taliesin have known of the defensive properties of birch’s armour and how birch bark can be used to heal and protect our skin?
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, (William Collins, 2017)
Robin D. Pasquale, The Medicine of The Birch Tree: Beyond Depurative, Naturopathic Doctor News and Review, (2014)
Svetlana Alekseevna Kuznetsova, ‘Extraction of betulin from birch bark and study of its physico-chemical and pharmacological properties’, Russian Journal of Bioorganic Chemistry, (2014)