Finns love birch – even in a sauna

Birch, the beautiful national tree of Finland, is among others known as a great raw material for pulp, wood products and the healthy sweetener xylitol. In the summer, birch is commonly used as a bath whisk (vihta or vasta in Finnish) in saunas. Preparing a sauna whisk is one of Finland's most enjoyable Midsummer traditions. And here you can learn how to prepare one.

For one birch whisk you need 35-40 birch branches with healthy and fully grown leaves. Don’t forget to ask the landowner’s permission to gather tree branches because this is not included in the famous Finnish 'everyman’s rights', which for example allow you to pick berries and mushrooms in the forests in Finland.

The best branches for a birch whisk come from silver birch (Betula pendula), which has stronger and rougher branches better suited for a bath whisk than its sister tree, downy birch. In the middle of the birch whisk you could, however, add one branch of downy birch or even blackcurrant to add a nice scent!

Start by selecting a long twig, about a metre in length, to create a bind. Peel the bark and soften the twig by winding it round in sections towards the base – this makes it flexible. Pile your birch branches, around 50cm long, one by one (like a bouquet of flowers) on the horizontal bind so that underside of the leaves face the outside of the whisk. The less green side of leaves is coarser and will stick less to wet skin during bathing. After you have piled half of the branches, turn the whisk around and complete the other side. Remove all leaves from the handgrip.

Wind your binding twig around the top of the 'handle' of your whisk, twisting the bind round as you go. Once the bind is looped round the handle twice, feed the twig down through the bind and pull to tighten. Using the same twig, created a second loop further down the handle, twist and tighten again, then loop the end of the twig back under the second bind to form a handle to hang your whisk. Finally, cut the bottom of the birch stems with a sharp knife to create a flat base. A carefully made whisk can be used for several sauna baths.

To enjoy a fresh birch whisk in your sauna in winter, they can be dried or frozen. A birch whisk should be dried in an airy location away from sunlight – then it must be rehydrated before use by submerging it in water. To freeze a whisk, wrap a fresh whisk tightly in cling film. A frozen whisk can be used as soon as it is fully defrosted.