Reaktion Books, London, 2018

Birch - Reaktion Books

Elegant and beautiful, rich in history and supremely useful, birches (Betula spp.) have played an extraordinary yet largely unrecognized part in shaping both our natural environment and the material culture and beliefs of millions of people around the world. For thousands of years they have given people of the northern forests and beyond raw materials in the form of leaves, twigs, branches and bark, as well as wood and sap, not simply to survive but to flourish and express their identity in practical and spiritual ways. Tough, water-proof and flexible, birch bark has been used for everything from basketry and clothing to housing and transport, musical instruments and medicines, as well as the means to communicate and record sacred beliefs: some of our most ancient Buddhist texts and other historic documents are written on birch bark scrolls.

Birches have not only shaped regional cultures, creating for example, the native American wigwam and the birch bark canoe, but continue to supply raw materials of global economic importance today, providing a range of contemporary products from fashionable health drinks and xylitol sweetener to grease-proof paper and sauna whisks. Birch explores the multiple uses of these versatile trees as well as the ancient beliefs and folklore with which they are associated and their abiding portrayal in literature and art.

Widely popular as amenity and garden trees, admired for the beauty of their foliage and for their tactile bark, wild birches are pioneers, transforming barren landscapes and providing food or habitat for many other forms of life. This richly illustrated book presents a fascinating overview of their cultural and ecological significance and looks too at what the future may hold for them.