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Bring on the birch!

Birch by Anna Lewington 2018. Reaktion Books Ltd.

“Miserable, naked, hungry”.

These three little words are used by the Phytophactor (the ‘nom de blog’ of Illinois State University Professor of Botany Joseph Armstrong) to begin his economic botany classes. Why? That triplet summarises three of the most essential, basic and fundamental services that plants provide for humanity. All of us who try to instill in our students a sense of appreciation of, and respect for, the plant world probably use a similar – and unashamedly heartstring-tugging, gut-wrenching, emotion-appealing – approach to get that important message across.

And we the use those three ideas to ‘big-up’ as many of the 369,400 species of flowering plants (which tally is substantially increased if all members of the Plant Kingdom and other plant-like entities including algae, blue-green algae, and lichens are included) as we can. And that’s probably as it should be. But, what I really didn’t appreciate, until having read Anna Lewington’s book Birch, was that there is one plant that does all three of those things. That plant – and there’s surely no surprise given the subject of this book review – is … birch. And Lewington provides a terrific insight not only into the many practical, life-enhancing and -saving ways in which humans have exploited this marvellous natural resource – the c. 54 pages of Chapter 3 are one of the most amazing catalogues of plant utility I’ve ever read – but also considers how humanity has interacted with it in artistic, mythological, folkloric, and religious ways. And all this is done in just six chapters and a rather economical 221 pages.

So, are you miserable? Maybe because of a medical condition or you are otherwise in poor health, or just ‘down’? Many medicinal claims are made for birch water – e.g. the UK’s Queen Victoria reputedly drank birch sap to halt thinning of her hair. Catkins, buds, leaves, twigs, roots and bark of birch have also been used medicinally, e.g. birch leaves as a treatment for rheumatism or arthritis, and tiny bark slivers have even been employed to remove cataracts from eyes. Need to be cheered-up? Birch wine may be just the tonic. Fed up because you can’t get out and about? Birch bark canoes – “the finest craft people have ever created” – water-proofed with birch tar [which product is also a remedy against 100 diseases, and has provided a marvellous ‘masticatory medicine’ for Mankind for millennia AND can also claim to be the first synthetic product made by humans…] may be the answer. They certainly were in North America where it is claimed that “the birch bark canoe built Canada”, and that birch bark more widely defined an entire way of life(!) If you want to travel even further afield, the Hughes Aviation Company of America constructed the world’s largest flying boat – the H-4 Hercules – almost entirely from birch. Miserable because you are cold? Birch tar oil (aka Russian petroleum) can be used as fuel to warm you up, or to help keep you safe from beasts or other humans that might harm you since it was used to lubricate rifles of the British Army before the First World War…

Are you naked? Birch bark can be fashioned into headgear, shoes, and a cape to keep you dry. Animal hides converted to Russia leather with birch products can produce extremely stylish and durable boots. The wigwams of the indigenous peoples of North America were made from birch bark and provide homes to keep people safe from the elements…

Are you hungry? Inner birch bark can yield a flour that has helped many individuals survive periods of poor cereal harvests, e.g. in 18th and 19th Century Scandinavia. In North America the edible inner bark of several shrubs and trees – including birch – was once a significant seasonal source of carbohydrates…

To give away more of the book’s ‘secrets’ would be a shame – and spoil the many surprises that are in store for the phytocurious who read this great little book. And, this book is especially useful for anybody who attempts to educate others about the wonderfulness of plants, there are examples aplenty in Birch to illustrate lectures or articles you plan to produce, or conversations you intend to have.

With the prodigious utility of this plant, you might be forgiven for thinking that I’m suggesting that we can get rid of all other plant species but just keep this one (although the genus rather than one specific species amongst the 46 or so Betula spp.…). Well, I’m not proposing that at all [and how out of character would such an idea be!]. What I am saying is how incredibly versatile is that awesome tree, and thank author Lewington for bringing that to my attention. I hope my personal moment of Epiphany will be shared by others as they too read Birch, a brilliant botanical book – and a great reminder of how wonderful plants are!


Reaktion Books have done it again! Anna Lewington’s Birch is a brilliant addition to the publisher’s Botanical series, and to the expanding library of plants-and-people literature. I have no hesitation in recommending it to everybody, both to those who need to know about plants, and to those – like this reviewer – who thought they already did; we can all be pleasantly surprised! We all could probably do with more plant knowledge in our lives. And there’s demonstrably nothing quite like birch to ‘whip-up’ enthusiasm for all things planty.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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