Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Of The Birch

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

1. The birch [betula, in British bedw, doubtless a proper indigene of England, (whence some derive the name of Barkshire) though Pliny calls it a Gaulish tree] is altogether produc'd of roots or suckers, (though it sheds a kind of samera about the Spring) which being planted at four or five foot interval, in small twigs, will suddenly rise to trees ; provided they affect the ground, which cannot well be too barren, or spongy ; for it will thrive both in the dry, and the wet, sand, and stony, marshes, and bogs ; the water-galls, and uliginous parts of forests that hardly bear any grass, do many times spontaneously produce it in abundance, whether the place be high, or low, and nothing comes amiss to it. Plant the small twigs, or suckers having roots, and after the first year, cut them within an inch of the surface ; this will cause them to sprout in strong and lusty tufts, fit for copp'ce, and spring-woods ; or, by reducing them to one stem, render them in a very few years fit for the turner. For

2. Though birch be of all other the worst of timber, yet has it its various uses, as for the husbandman's ox-yoaks ; also for hoops, small screws, paniers, brooms, wands, bavin-bands, and wythes for fagots ; and claims a memory for arrows, bolts, shafts, (our old English artillery ;) also for dishes, bowls, ladles, and other domestic utensils, in the good old days of more simplicity, yet of better and truer hospitality. In New-England our Northern Americans make canoos, boxes, buckets, kettles, dishes, which they sow, and joyn very curiously with thread made of cedar-roots, and divers other domestical utensils, as baskets, baggs, with this tree, whereof they have a blacker kind ; and out of a certain excrescence from the bole, a fungus, which being boil'd, beaten, and dry'd in an oven, makes excellent spunck or touch-wood, and balls to play withal ; and being reduc'd to powder, astringent, is an infallible remedy in the hoemerhoids. They make also not only this small ware, but even small-craft, pinnaces of birch, ribbing them with white cedar, and covering them with large flakes of birch-bark, sow them with thread of spruse-roots, and pitch them, as it seems we did even here in Britain, as well as the Veneti, making use of the willow, whereof Lucan,

When Sicoris to his own banks restor'd,
Had quit the field, of twigs, and willow-board
They build small craft, cover'd with bullocks-hide,
In which they reach'd the rivers farther side :
So sail the Veneti if Padus flow,
The Britains sail on their rough ocean so.
Also for fuel : In many of the mosses in the West-

Riding of Yorkshire, are often dug up birch-trees, that burn and flame like fir and candle-wood; and I think Pliny says the Gaules extracted a sort of bitumen out of birch : Great and small coal, are made by the charring of this wood ; (see Book III Chap. 4. of fuel) as of the tops and loppings, Mr. Howard's new tanne. The inner white cuticle and silken-bark, (which strips off of it self almost yearly) was anciently us'd for writing-tables, even before the invention of paper ; of which there is a birch-tree in Canada, whose bark will serve to write on, and may be made into books, and of the twigs very pretty baskets ; with the outward thicker and courser part of the common birch, are divers houses in Russia, Poland, and those poor northern tracts cover'd, instead of slates and tyle : Nay, one who has lately publish'd an account of Sweden, says, that the poor people grind the very bark of birch-trees, to mingle with their bread-corn. 'Tis afpirm'd by Cardan, that some birch-roots are so very extravagantly vein'd, as to represent the shapes and images of beasts, birds, trees, and many other pretty resemblances. Lastly, of the whitest part of the old wood, found commonly in doating birches, is made the grounds of our effeminate farin'd gallants sweet powder ; and of the quite consum'd and rotten (such as we find reduc'd to a kind of reddish earth in superannuated hollow-trees) is gotten the best mould for the raising of divers seedlings of the rarest plants and flowers ; to say nothing here of the magisterial fasces, for which anciently the cudgels were us'd by the lictor, for lighter faults, as now the gentler rods by our tyrannical pa dagogues.

3. I should here add the uses of the water too, had I full permission to tamper with all the medicinal virtues of trees : But if the sovereign effects of the juice of this despicable tree supply its other defects (which make some judge it unworthy to be brought into the catalogue of woods to be propagated) I may perhaps for once, be permitted to play the empiric, and to gratifie our laborious wood-man with a draught of his own liquor ; and the rather, because these kind of secrets are not yet sufficiently cultivated ; and ingenious planters would by all means be encourag'd to make more trials of this nature, as the Indians and other nations have done on their palmes ; and trees of several kinds, to their great emolument. The mystery is no more than this : About the beginning of March (when the buds begin to be proud and turgid, and before they explain into leaves) with a chizel and a mallet, cut a slit almost as deep as the very pith, under some bough or branch of a well-spreading birch ; cut it oblique, and not long-ways (as a good chirurgion would make his orifice in a vein) inserting a small stone or chip, to keep the lips of the wound a little open. Sir Hugh Plat, (giving a general rule for the gathering of sap, and tapping of trees) would have it done within one foot of the ground, the first rind taken off, and then the white bark slit over-thwart, no farther than to the body of the tree : Moreover, that this wound be made only in that part of the bark which respects the south-west, or between those quarters ; because (says he) little or no sap riseth from the northern, nor indeed when the east-wind blows. In this slit, by the help of your knife to open it, he directs that a leaf of the tree be inserted, first fitted to the dimensions of the slit, from which the sap will distil in manner of filtration : Take away the leaf, and the bark will close again, a little earth being clapped to the slit. Thus the Knight for any tree. But we have already shew'd how the birch is to be treated : Fasten therefore a bottle, or some such convenient vessel appendant ; this does the effect as well as perforation or tapping : Out of this aperture will extil a limpid and clear water, retaining an obscure smack both of the tast and odor of the tree ; and which (as I am credibly inform'd) will in the space of twelve or fourteen days, preponderate, and out-weigh the whole tree it self, body and roots ; which if it be constant, and so happen likewise in other trees, is not only stupendous, but an experiment worthy the consideration of our profoundest philosophers : An ex sola aqua fiunt arbores ? whether water only be the principle of vegetables, and consequently of trees the whole season ? But I conceive I have good authority for my assertion, out of the author cited in the margin, whose words are these : Si menu' Martio perforaveris betulam, &c. exstillabit aqua limpida, clara, & pura, obscurum arboris saporem & odorem referens, qua spatio 12 alit 14 dierum, praeponderabit arbori cum ramis & radicibus, &c. His exceptions about the beginning of March are very insignificant ; since I undertake not punctuality of time ; and his own pretended experience shew'd him, that in hard weather it did not run till the expiration of the month, or beginning of April ; and another time on the tenth of February ; and usually he says, about the twenty-fourth day, &c. at such uncertainty : What immane difference then is there between the twenty-fourth of Feb. and commencement of March ? Besides, these anomolous bleedings, (even of the same tree) happen early or later, according to the temper of the air and weather. In the mean time, evident it is, that we know of no tree which does more copiously attract, be it that so much celebrated spirit of the world, (as they call it) in form of water (as some) or a certain specifique liquor richly impregnated with this balsamical property : That there is such a magnes in this simple tree, as does manifestly draw to it self some occult and wonderful virtue, is notorious ; nor is it conceivable, indeed, the difference between the efficacy of that liquor which distils from the bole, or parts of the tree nearer to the root (where Sir Hugh would celebrate the incision) and that which weeps out from the more sublime branches, more impregnated with this astral vertue, as not so near the root, which seems to attract rather a cruder, and more common water, through fewer strainers, and neither so pure, and aerial as in those refined percolations, the nature of the places where these trees delight to grow (for the most part lofty, dry, and barren) consider'd. But I refer these disquisitions to the learned ; especially, as mention'd by that incomparable philosopher, and my most noble friend, the Honourable Mr. Boyle, in his second part of the Usefulness of Natural Philosophy, Sect. 1. Essay 3d. where he speaks of the manna del corpo, or trunk-manna, as well as of that liquor from the bough ; also of the sura which the coco-trees afford ; and that Polonian secret of the liquor of the walnut-tree root ; with an encouragement of more frequent experiments to educe saccharine substances upon these occasions : But the book being publish'd so long since this Discourse was first printed, I take only here the liberty to refer the reader to one of the best entertainments in the world.

But now before we expatiate farther concerning saps; it is by some controverted, whether this exhaust-ion would not he an extreme detriment to the growth, substance, and other parts of trees : As to the growth and bulk, if what I have observ'd of a birch, which has for very many years been perforated at the usual season, (besides the scars made in the bark) it still thrives, and is grown to a prodigious substance, the species consider'd. What it would effect in other trees (the vine excepted unseasonably launc'd) I know not : But this calls to mind, a tryal of Esq ; Brother-ton, (mentioning some excortications and incisions, by what he observ'd in pruning,) that most (if not all) of the sap ascends by the lignous part of trees, not the cortical ; nor between the cortical and lignous : And that the increase of a tree's growth in thickness, is by the descent of the sap, and not by the ascent ; so as if there were no descent, the tree would increase very Iittle, if at all ; for that there is a perpetual circulation of the sap, during the whole Summer ; and whilst it is in this course, and not a descent at Michaelmas only, as some hold, but evaporated by the branches, during Summer and Autumn, and at Spring supplied with rains. He also thinks it probable, that the bodies of plants, as well as those of animals, are nourish'd and increas'd by a double pabulum or food ; as water and air both impregnated, mixing and coalescing by a mutual conversion.

That all plants and animals seem to have a two-fold kind of roots, one spreading into the earth, the other shooting up into the air ; which, as they receive and carry up their proper nutriments to the body of the plant and root, so they carry off the useless dregs and recrements, &c. But this curious note seeming fitter to have been plac'd in our chapter of Pruning, (upon which this learned gentleman has given us his experience) I beg pardon for this diverticle, and return to my subject.

4. But whilst the second edition was under my hand, there came to me divers papers upon this subject, experimentally made by a worthy friend of mine, a learned and most industrious person, which I had here once resolv'd to have publish'd, according to the generous liberty granted me for so doing ; but under-standing he was still in pursuit of that useful, and curious secret, I chang'd my resolution into an earnest address, that he would communicate it to the world himself, together with those other excellent enquiries and observations, which he is adorning for the benefit of planters, and such as delight themselves in those innocent rusticities. I will only by way of corollary, hint some particulars for satisfaction of the curious ; and especially that we may in some sort gratifie those earnest suggestions and queries of the late most obliging 1 publisher of the Philosophical Transactions, to whose indefatigable pains the learned world has been infinitely engag'd. In compliance therefore to his Queries, Monday, Octob. 19. 1668. numb. 40. p. 797, Soi, &c. these generals are submitted : That in such trials as my friend essay'd, he has not yet encountred with any sap but what is very clear and sweet ; especially that of the sycomor, which has a dulcoration as if mixed with sugar, and that it runs one of the earliest : That the maple distill'd when quite rescinded from the body, and even whilst he yet held it in his hand : That the sycomor ran at the root, which some days before yielded no sap from his branches ; the experiment made at the end of March : But the accurate knowledge of the nature of sap, and its periodic motions and properties in several trees, should be observed by some at entire leisure to attend it daily, and almost continually, and will require more than any one person's industry can afford : For it must be enquir'd concerning every tree, its age, soil, situation, &c. the variety of its ascending sap depending on it ; and then of its sap ascending in the branches and roots ; descending in cut branches ; ascending from root, and not from branches ; the seasons and difference of time in which those accidents happen, &c. He likewise thinks the best expedient to procure store of liquor, is, to cut the trees almost quite through all the circles, on both sides the pith, leaving only the outmost circle, and the barks on the north, or north-east side unpierced ; and this hole, the larger it is bored, the more plentifully 'twill distill ; which if it be under, and through a large arm, near the ground, it is effected with greatest advantage, and will need neither stone, nor chip to keep it open, nor spigot to direct it to the recipient. Thus it will, in a short time, afford liquor sufficient to brew with ; and in some of these sweet saps, one bushel of mault will afford as good ale, as four in ordinary waters, even in March it self; in others, as good as two bushels ; for this, preferring the sycomor before any other : But to preserve it in best condition for brewing, till you are stored with a sufficient quantity, it is advis'd, that what first runs, be insolated and placed in the sun, till the remainder be prepar'd, to prevent its growing sour : But it may also be fermented alone, by such as have the secret : To the curious these essays are recommended : That it be immediately stopp'd up in the bottles in which it is gathered, the corks well wax'd, and expos'd to the sun, till (as was said) sufficient quantity be run ; then let so much rye-bread (toasted very dry, but not burnt) be put into it, as will serve to set it a working; and when it begins to ferment, take it out, and bottle it immediately. If you add a few cloves, &c. to steep in it, 'twill certainly keep the year about : 'Tis a wonder how speedily it extracts the tast and tincture of the spice. Mr. Boyle proposes a sulphurous fume to the bottles : Spirit of wine may haply not only preserve, but advance the virtues of saps ; and infusions of rasins are obvious, and without decoction best, which does but spend the more delicate parts. Note, that the sap of the birch, will make excellent mead.

5. To these observations, that of the weight and virtue of the several juices, would be both useful and curious : As whether that which proceeds from the bark, or between that and the wood be of the same nature with that which is suposed to spring from the pores of the woody circles ? and whether it rise in like quantity, upon comparing the incisures ? All which may be try'd, first attempting through the bark, and saving that apart, and then perforating into the wood, to the thickness of the bark, or more ; with a like separation of what distills. The period also of its current would be calculated ; as how much proceeds from the bark in one hour, how much from the wood or body of the tree, and thus every hour, with still a deeper incision, with a good large augre, till the tree be quite perforated : Then by making a second hole within the first, fitted with a lesser pipe, the interior heart-sap may be drawn apart, and examin'd by weight, quantity, colour, distillation, &c. and if no difference perceptible be detected the presumption will be greater, that the difference of heart and sap in timber, is not from the saps plenty or penury, but the season; and then possibly, the very season of squaring, as well as felling of timber, may be considerable to the preservation of it.

6. The notice likewise of the saps rising more plentifully, and constantly in the sun, than shade ; more in the day than night, more in the roots than branch, more southward, and when that, and the west-wind blows, than northward, &c. may yield many useful observations : As for planting, to set thicker, or thinner (si caetera sin: paria) namely, the nature of the tree, soil, &c. and not to shade overmuch the roots of those stems we desire should mount, &c. That in transplanting trees we turn the best and largest roots towards the south, and consequently the most ample and spreading part of the head correspondent to the roots : For if there be a strong root on that quarter, and but a feeble attraction in the branches, this may not always counterpoise the weak roots on the north-side, damnified by the too puissant attract-ion of over large branches : This may also suggest a cause why trees flourish more on the south-side, and have their integument and coats thicker on those aspects annually, with divers other useful speculations, if in the mean time, they seem not rather to be puntillos over nice for a plain forester. Let the curious further consult Philos. Transactions, numb. 43, 44, 46, 48, 57, 58, 68, 70, 71. for farther instances and tryals, upon this subject of sap. And that excellent treatise of Hen. Meibomius. De Cervisiis Potibusque; & Ebriaminibus extra Vinum, annext to Turnebus de Vino, &c. Where he shews how, and by whom, (after the first use of water and milk) were introduc'd the drinks made from vegetables, vines, corn, and other fruits and juices tapp'd out of trees, &c.

7. To shew our reader yet, that these are no novel experiments, we are to know, that a large tract of the world, almost altogether subsists on these treen liquors ; especially that of the date, which being grown to about seven or eight foot in height, they wound, as we have taught, for the sap, which they call toddy, a very famous drink in the East-Indies. This tree increasing every year about a foot, near the opposite part of the first incisure, they pierce again, changing the receiver ; and so still by opposite wounds and notches, they yearly draw forth the liquor, till it arrive to near thirty foot upward, and of these they have ample groves and plantations which they set at seven or eight foot distance : But then they use to percolate what they extract, through a stratum made of the rind of the tree, well contus'd and beaten, before which preparation, it is not safe to drink it ; and 'tis observed that some trees afford a much more generous wine than others of the same kind. In the coco and palmeto trees, they chop a bough, as we do the bétula ; but in the date, make the incision with a chisel in the body very neatly, in which they stick a leaf of the tree, as a lingula to direct it into the appendant vessel, which the subjoin'd figure represents, and illustrates with its improvement to our former discourse_

Note, if there be no fitting arms, the hole thus obliquely perforated, and a faucet or pipe made of a swan's or goose's quill inserted, will lead the sap into the recipient; and this is a very neat way, and as effectual : I would also have it try'd, whether the very top twigs, grasped in the hand together, a little cropt with a knife, and put into the mouth of a bottle, would not instil, if not as much, yet a more refined liquor, as some pretend.

8. The liquor of the birch is esteemed to have all the virtues of the spirit of salt, without the danger of its acrimony ; most powerful for the dissolving of the stone in the bladder, bloody water and strangury : Helmont shews how to make a beer of the water ; but the wine is a most rich cordial, curing (as I am told) consumptions, and such interior diseases as accompany the stone in the bladder or reins' : The juice decocted with honey and wine, Dr. Needham affirms he has often cur'd the scorbut with. This wine, exquisitely made, is so strong, that the common sort of stone-bottles cannot preserve the spirits, so subtile they are and volatile ; and yet it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the appetite, being drunk ante portion will present you a receipt, as it was sent me by a fair lady, and have often, and still use it.

9. To every gallon of birch-water put a quart of honey, well stirr'd together ; then boil it almost an hour with a few cloves, and a little limon-peel, keeping it well scumm'd : When it is sufficiently boil'd, and become cold, add to it three or four spoonfuls of good ale to make it work (which it will do like new ale) and when the yest begins to settle, bottle it up as you do other winy liquors. It will in a competent time become a most brisk and spiritous drink, which (besides the former virtues) is a very powerful opener, and doing wonders for cure of the phthysick : This wine may (if you please) be made as successfully with sugar, instead of honey 1 Ib. to each gallon of water ; or you may dulcifie it with raisins, and compose a raisin-wine of it. I know not whether the quantity of the sweet ingredients might not be somewhat reduc'd, and the operation irnprov'd : But I give it as receiv'd. The author of the Vinetum Brit. boils it but to a quarter or half an hour, then setting it a cooling, adds a very little yest to ferment and purge it ; and so barrels it with a small proportion of cinamon and mace bruis'd, about half an ounce of both to ten gallons, close stopp'd, and to be bottled a month after, Care must be taken to set the bottles in a very cool place, to preserve them from flying ; and the wine is rather for present drinking, than of long duration, unless the refrigeratorie he extraordinarily cold. The very smell of the first springing leaves of this tree, wonderfully recreates and exhilerates the spirits.

10. But besides these, beech, alder, ash, sycomor, elder, &c. would be attempted for liquors : Thus crabs, and even our very brambles may possibly yield us medical and useful wines. The poplar was hereto-fore esteem'd more physical than the betula. The sap of the oak, juice, or decoction of the inner bark, cures the fashions, or farcy, a virulent and dangerous infirmity in horses, and which (like cancers) were reputed incurable by any other topic, than some actual, or potential cautery : But, what is more noble, a dear friend of mine affur'd me, that a countrey neighbour of his (at least fourscore years of age) who had lain sick of a bloody strangury (which by cruel torments reduc'd him to the very article of death) was, under God, recover'd to perfect, and almost miraculous health and strength (so as to be able to fall stoutly to his labour) by one sole draught of beer, wherein was the decoction of the internal bark of the oak-tree ; and I have seen a composition of an admirable sudorific, and diuretic for all affections of the liver, out of the like of the elm, which might yet he drunk daily, as our coffee is, and with no less delight : But quacking is not my trade ; I speak only here as a plain husband-man, and a simple forester, out of the limits whereof, I hope I have not unpardonably transgressed : Pan was a physician, and he (you know) was president of the woods. But I proceed to the alder.

Home | More Articles | Email: