FOLKLORE & PRACTICAL USES: ALDER
by Muirghein uí Dhún Aonghasa (Linda Kerr)
Alnus glutinosa L. – European Alder, Black Alder. Native of Europe, Asia, North Africa; naturalized in southeastern Canada and northeastern North America.
A. rubra – Oregon Alder, Red Alder. Evergreen and redwood forests from Northern California to Alaska.
A. serrulata – Hazel Alder, Common Alder. From Nova Scotia south to north Florida, west to east Texas and north to Kansas.
A. rugosa– Speckled Alder, Tag Alder. Across Canada and Great Lakes region.
Description & Uses
Alders are small, shrubby trees found in swamps or on the banks of ponds and slow-moving streams, where they help prevent soil erosion with their closely interlaced roots. The alder is easily recognized, even in winter, by its catkins, which look like a tiny fir-cone, and by its broad oval, ridged leaves. It flowers in the spring before the leaves appear, and has ripe berries in the fall.
The wood of the European alder, which grows to 30-40′,1 is very durable and lasting in water — most of Venice is built on piles of alder, and has lasted for centuries.2 The wood is known in the Highlands as Scottish mahogany, and is used for making chairs, as well as water pipes, pumps, troughs, and sluices.3 It was also used heavily in boat construction.4
The Hazel alder is too small to be of commercial value as timber, but the Oregon alder grows to a good size — up to 120 ft in the Puget Sound region5 — and is one of the principal hardwoods of that area. The American Indians made canoes and dugouts from the trunk of the tree, and also made cooking vessels, troughs, and food containers from the wood.6 Its only fault is that it decays so quickly in contact with the weather and the soil.7
The alder doesn’t make good firewood (again, the Oregon alder is an exception8), but it does make better charcoal than any other wood. Even after its other uses as a timber had declined, alder charcoal was still considered the best type for making gunpowder.9
All parts of the alder are an excellent source of natural dyes. The bark makes a reddish color, called Aldine Red, when used alone, or as a foundation for other materials, yields a black dye. The bark and young shoots together give a yellow dye, and with a little copper added to make a yellowish-grey, is used in some of the flesh colors in embroidering tapestries. The fresh shoots dye cinnamon; when dried and powdered they give a tawny shade. The fresh wood makes a pinkish-fawn dye; the catkins make a green dye.10
The bark and young shoots contain tannic acid, but also have so much natural dye matter that they aren’t very useful for tanning. The leaves have been used for this, however. The leaves are also clammy and slightly sticky, hence the specific name of the alder, glutinosa, and will catch flies on their surface when spread in a room.11
The American and European alders have similar medicinal properties; the parts used are the bark and leaves of the European alder, and the bark and cones of the American alders. The medicinal parts are tonic and astringent, according to Grieve,12 and astringent, bitter (acts on the mucous membranes of the mouth and stomach to increase appetite and promote digestion), emetic (causes vomiting), and hemostatic (stops bleeding), according to Lust.13 On any species, the fresh inner bark and root bark are emetic; dry and age these before use, or let the decoction stand and settle for 2-3 days, until its yellow color has turned black. Hutchens says this will strengthen the stomach and increase the appetite.14
Use a decoction of the bark externally to bathe swellings and inflammations, and as a gargle for an inflamed or sore throat and laryngitis. The decoction is good as an external application in gangrene, ulcers and other skin problems. Boiling the bark in vinegar produces a liquid with several uses: it’s an approved (according to Hutchens) remedy to kill head lice, relieve the itch and dry up the scabs. This vinegar is also good for other skin problems and scabs, and to tighten the gums (as a mouthwash), clean the teeth and soothe a toothache.15
The cones, being astringent, are useful in heavy bleeding, both internally and externally. They are also used as a stomach tonic in diarrhea and indigestion, and are good for fevers. Grieve says peasants in the Alps were frequently cured of rheumatism by being covered with bags full of the heated leaves.16 The berries, combined with apple cider, make a good worm medicine for children. The treatment is supposed to be most effective when given on the full moon, and must be repeated in four weeks to clear out the remaining larvae.17
The Irish consider the alder to be an unlucky tree. They feel its a bad thing to pass by one on a journey, and they also don’t like to fell an alder, as the timber cuts white and then turns a startling, brilliant reddish-orange, rather like blood.18
Other superstition or emotion attached to the alder seems to be almost nonexistent; “perhaps because it was a tree of swamp and marsh and impenetrable valley floors, which needed the exorcism of natural history. Yet once enjoyed, an alder swamp along a Cornish stream, for example, remains perennially and primevally enchanting — the trees alive and dead, moss-bearded and lichen-bearded, the soil and the water like coal slack and blacksmith’s water, in between the tussocks of sedge.”19Notes:
1 Brimble, L.J.F. Trees in Britain. 1946. MacMillan and Co. Ltd., London, pg. 239.
2 Green, Charlotte Hilton. Trees of the South. 1939. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, pg. 112.
3 Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal (2 volumes). 1931. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, pg. 17.
4 Green, pg. 112.
5 Peattie, Donald Culross. A Natural History of Western Trees. 1950. Bonanza Books, New York, NY, pg. 399.
6 Green, pg. 112.
7 Peattie, pg. 400.
8 Ibid, pg. 400.
9 Brimble, pg. 241.
10 Grieve, pg. 17.
11 Ibid, pg. 17-18.
12 Ibid, pg. 18.
13 Lust, John. The Herb Book. 1973. Bantam Books, New York, NY, pg. 122.
14 Hutchens, Alma R. Indian Herbology of North America. 1973. Merco, Ontario, Canada. Published in London, England, pg. 4.
15 Ibid, pg. 4.
16 Grieve, pg. 18.
17 Hutchens, pg. 4.
18 Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Phoenix House LTD, London, England, pg. 246.
19 Ibid, pg. 246.