In the north, we find the ordinary birch (pubescent birch), the silver birch, the mountain birch and the dwarf birch. The different birch species can merge and create hybrid species. As very small, the leaves of the birch are called buds. In Sámi, the birch has a different name according to its age and size: vesá is a sprout of the tree, látnja is a slightly bigger, young birch, and only the big birch is called a tree, or muorra. Young birches look “oily”; their smooth trunk is dark and has white stripes, and the bark does not shrivel up. Such a birch burns well, even in winter.
Birch as a source of materials
As timber, birch is hard and strong, and, therefore, it is used as a material for buildings and transportation equipment. The curly birch is a decorative kind of wood, which is suitable for the handles of knives and for cups. From a birch gnarl, one can make decorative objects. “We would certainly not have made it here, if we had not had firewood. We used to need the birch for fishing, too: we dried the nets on a horizontal birch pole, we fastened things with birchwood, pushed the boats upstream with a birch pole and built certain parts of the weirs out of birch. We also needed stands that the boat could rest against in the winter, so that snow would not damage it. In hay-making, we needed poles to dry and a stand to store the hay on: we also needed fencing and hay poles. In reindeer herding, we needed corrals of many sizes for round-ups. I have often built small huts from the birches that have been growing in the area where I have been fishing or hunting for willow grouse.” “The weir that we catch salmon with is made almost completely of birchwood. Rocks are placed on the trestles to prevent the stream from breaking the weir. The birch branches that direct the fish into the “fish bag” should not have leaves, as that would make them too heavy in the water. The support poles are tied to the trestles with withes made of birch. A trestle lasts for ten years, although you have to check and repair it every year.”
Birch branches were practical in many ways. A raft made of branches – and drawn by a horse – was used for spreading manure on the hayfield. In the hut or house and outside it, people used brushes, for example to clean the fireplace or the floor. Soft branches were made into a brush that was used for getting the snow off clothes. Cows and the draught reindeer were fed on leaf fodder. Disobedient children could be given a birching. In front of the outdoor, a doormat made from birch branches was placed. The floor of a Sámi tent or sod hut was covered with birch branches. In winter, people sat on a small birch mat by the fire. In summer, branches and twigs could be used for a small fire. Out of branches, you could also make forks, roasting sticks and sticks to hang the pots on when making coffee or food over the fire. Animals were caught with “lassos” made from branches, and the snares for catching willow grouse were also made from branches. Wild reindeer and reindeer were hunted with the help of driving fences that were made of branches, and waterfowls were hunted with the help of wooden decoys. A branch was stuck in a lump of lichen that was gathered as food for the reindeer, and, after the lump had frozen, the branch worked as a handle. When walking in the woods, people would chew sappy twigs; this was a way of cleaning your teeth. Earlier, children used to play with reindeer that were made from birch twigs.
It is easiest to take the bark from the birch in the spring. The sheets of bark are dried under a weight so that they no longer shrivel. Before bark can be used, it must be soaked in hot water or warmed by the fire to make it flexible. The warm bark is sewn with birch or pine root. Birch-bark was earlier used for net floats, knife handles, and baskets, pails and other dishes that were for picking cloudberries. The Skolt Sámi prepared dishes and baskets of different shapes and sizes from bark. Such articles were usually made from bark sheets by folding and sewing. A bark rucksack was a good bag to have ones food in when making hay from the marshes, as it kept the food cool. Birch-bark was also used for rattles, salt bottles and decorations.
The dye that one gets from birch can be used for dyeing and tanning skins and leather. The thin slices of bark that one got from the birch by scraping were dried and made into a dye by simmering, often together with willow bark. Birch-bark makes the skin or leather browner than willow-bark, but it does not soften it as well. Birch-bark has also been used for dyeing woollen yarn and fishing nets and for the decoration of woodcraft. The mordant has consisted, at first, of ash and, later, of chemicals.
Roots can be gathered throughout the summer. They are easiest to peel in the early summer when gathering them in the woods. The roots are wound up and let dry. Before using them, they have to be soaked in warm water. Withes were earlier used for fastening in fences, scythes, bark boxes, baskets and dishes. Fresh roots were also used for snare-like fishing gear.
Ash can be used as a fertilizer for the birch, the sedges that shoegrass is made from, and the red currant. It keeps worms away from the turnip field, but the potato field should not be fertilized with it. In spring, snow melts faster if you spread ash on the snow; the same ash will later fertilize the ground. It is a good substance for cleaning and polishing dishes. You can make coffee-pots, casseroles, brass and copper articles and dark spoons shine again by polishing them with ash. However, dishes made from zinc and aluminium should not be polished with it. Ashes can be used for cleaning the floor from the leavings of mice.