“Let us always go toward the northwest, and we shall surely reach Finland, and when we are there, the birch and the star shall be our sign. If we see the star shining through the leaves of the birch, we shall know that we are at home.” An excerpt from “The Birch and the Star,” a story by Zacharias Topelius, a Finnish author (1818-1898).

According to an old Finnish story, the birch can be your guide when you are lost. In the modern times it can be drank like coconut water. Photograph: Tony Öhberg/Finland Today
According to an old Finnish story, the birch can be your guide when you are lost. In the modern times, it can be drank like coconut water. Photograph: Tony Öhberg/Finland Today

Three years ago, after just having arrived from Mexico in the eastern city of Joensuu, a classmate asked me what was the most Finnish thing I had done so far.

I wanted to say something impressive like visiting Rovaniemi or seeing the Northern Lights, but I had done neither.

Now, as I look back at that moment I realize that there is a “Finnish experience” that everyone can have no matter the time of year or the part of the country. It is something that makes up an important part of the Finnish landscape, a tree that is hard to miss and yet often goes unnoticed.

The silver birch was chosen as Finland’s national tree in 1988 and it has had many different uses over the centuries.

Although I had seen them standing tall on sidewalks and forests, I first noticed them while at the library. In the 20th century, a Finnish author, Zacharias Topelius, wrote a story called “The Birch and the Star” which I found in an old collection of Finnish short stories. The story follows a pair of siblings who find their way back to Finland during wartime thanks to a birch tree and a star. I found the story heartwarming and decided to take a closer look at those slim trees.

Turns out there are at least three simple ways in which one can come in contact with them in a true “Finnish way.” The first way is to drink a silver birch sap. The sap is collected when the snow starts melting and is considered a natural detoxifying drink. Think of it like the Finnish version of refreshing coconut water. The second way is by having a birchy sauna experience.

You might have noticed the vasta or vihta, Finnish for the birch switch used to gently beat the skin. This strange action is considered to have soothing effects on the skin and to relax the muscles.

In summer, after being attacked by Finnish monster mosquitoes, I found the use of this to be helpful.

Lastly, if you visit a local market, you might be able to find birch products like baskets and even traditional shoes made from birch bark!

The next time you want to immerse yourself in a Finnish experience you won’t need to go very far.