One of the most striking things as we dropped down over Zoji La pass from the barren landscape of Ladakh into verdant Kashmir last September was the appearance of trees on the hillsides, clinging on to the steepest slopes. Many were pines and other conifers, but these were leavened with a scattering of deciduous trees, including the elegant Himalayan birch, Betula utilis (Sanskrit name bhûrja).
Himalayan birch above Sonamarg
The Latin name of this species gives a clue to its importance and, perhaps because of this, the tree is regarded as sacred in the Himalayas. The wood is used both for fuel and as a building material, the leaves are cut as animal fodder and the distinctive white bark is used both as a packaging material and in traditional medicine. The bark is applied to wounds and burns because of its antiseptic properties (Kumaraswamy et al., 2008), an infusion of it is given for hysteria, and water boiled with bark is taken in cases of jaundice and used as drops to relieve earache. A paste made from the resin is applied to boils and used as a contraceptive, in some regions (IUCN Red List, B. utilis).
The wood of Himalayan birch is hard, dense and rather brittle and the branches are used to build many of the small footbridges which cross melt-water rivers and streams. Some of these are more secure looking than others!
In the past the bark was also used for paper (bhûrja patra), water-proofing and roofing houses. The horizontally arranged lenticels (pores) in the bark allow it to be peeled off in large, very thin, horizontal strips which make it particularly useful.
Himalayan birch bark showing horizontally-arranged lenticels (http://www.buzzle.com/images/trees/himalayan-birch.jpg)
Sanskrit texts were written on the bark of B. utilis until Akbar introduced paper to the region in the early 16th century and sacred Hindu mantras are still written on tiny pieces of the bark today, and worn as amulets. Legend has it that the attendants of Lord Shiva wore clothes made from birch bark.
17th Century Kashmiri document written on birch bark
Himalayan birch is a specimen tree in gardens throughout the world, favoured for its upright growth habit, dense crown and startlingly-white bark but is increasingly threatened by overexploitation in its Himalayan home. Reforestation programmes are underway in the area around Gangotri, in Uttarakhand, where its use as firewood by the vast numbers of pilgrims heading for the source of the sacred Ganges has put the Himalayan birch under particular pressure. More general deforestation is a problem throughout much of Kashmir – Tahir told us that, in the area around Sonamarg, people deliberately set fires at the base of large trees in order to kill them. Live trees are protected under the law but, once they are dead, trees can be cut down with impunity.
IUCN Red List (Betula utilis) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/194535/0
Kumaraswamy, M.V., Kavitha, S.U. & Satish, S. (2008) Antibacterial evaluation and phytochemical analysis of Betula edulis D. Don against some human pathogenic bacteria. Advances in Biological Research, 2, 21-25.