Understanding Russian idioms: the Birch

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Jun 23, 2019 19:47
The birch (берёза) is one of those tree species you can see everywhere in central European Russia: in the countryside, in urban areas, in the woods and in the fields. The birch has been important for centuries in crafts. For instance, birch bark (береста) has been used for making traditional shoes (лапти), containers for berries and other food (туески) and pictures (лубок). Birch twigs are a common material for brooms, while bunches with withered green leaves are a must for visiting a banya. Birch sap (берёзовый сок) is collected by some in spring and considered to have a healing effect. Thus, the birch has made it into many Russian sayings, idioms, folk songs and poems.
Often, the birch is compared to a woman. "Slender like a birch tree" (стройная, как берёзка) they say when describing a slim woman (but never a man). Birch catkins are known as серёжки, which translates as 'earrings'.
Birch bark is white with black patches here and there. Birch woods look transparent and feel more spacious than other forests, there is usually more room between the trees, and more light penetrates through tree tops. It would be correct to say that the birch is an intrinsically Russian tree.
There are also somewhat negative aspects associated with the birch. For instance, lashing as a punishment used to involve thin birch twigs (берёзовые розги) and this resulted in an idiom 'дать берёзовой каши' (literally, "give someone birch 'porridge'"), but this is not a widely used idiom nowadays.
However, the birch is mostly associated with something positive. There is a popular Russian folk song beginning with the words "Во поле берёза стояла" (There stood a birch tree in the field). A nostalgic poem by Sergei Yesenin, which millions of Russian school students learn by heart, describes a birch tree outside his house in his home village.

The poem "Берёза" by Sergei Yesenin adapted into a song: