2021.02.05 Alder Tree
Updated: Mar 28
Just a few months before Covid-19 changed everything, I was in Venice. It was my first time there and drama ensued as Aqua Alta (the worst in centuries) saw massively rising water levels drown the beautiful city. As I waded, thigh deep, amidst the chaos, I observed the buildings standing unmoved (in any sense), built as they were on piles made of Alder, one of the most durable woods in the world. In fact Alder wood, rather than becoming waterlogged, gets stronger and becomes as hard as stone when immersed - which is why the builders of Venice (and Amsterdam) chose it.
They were, of course, following in the footsteps of the ancient Bronze Age people who built their crannogs (wooden strongholds in the middle of lakes) on Alder piles; and constructed Alder or oak tóchars (boardwalks) across bogs. Remnants of these can still be found in peat bogs in Ireland today although tragically many of them are being destroyed.
Historically, Alder has been used in the construction of boats, sluice gates, canal locks and water pipes - but it is only durable if it’s kept wet and disintegrates rapidly when removed from water. Such was the lesson learned with the Ballachulish Goddess, a life-sized figure from 600 BC, carved from a single piece of Alder, with quartzite pebbles for eyes.
She had once stood overlooking the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea - some kind of prehistoric pagan goddess; but over the centuries she was swallowed up by Scottish bog, and was only rediscovered in the 1880s. After all her years in water, the Alder goddess was allowed to dry out on her journey to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh. Firstly she broke at the legs, and then as she dried out further, the Alder warped and cracked, and a large piece broke off….. Today she is a beloved museum piece (see photo) who always reminds me of Groot.
Alder (Alnus) was considered sacred to the Irish, Welsh and Greeks and, in the Celtic world, was associated with healing, breath, the sunrise, the east and new beginnings. Its symbol in the Celtic Ogham script is a vertical line with 3 horizontal strokes to the centre right, and as a tree which is monoecious (carries both male and female catkins at once) it is associated with balance, connection with others, intuition, music, poetry and remaining true to your ethics.
Alder has long been linked with the Welsh deity known as Bran, who uses his giant cauldron to resurrect the dead: this made Alder popular with occultists who would entice crows to an Alder tree (with seed and food) and ask them for help connecting with the spirits of the dead.
Alder loves water. A native tree in Ireland, it grows in moist ground near rivers, ponds and lakes and it thrives in damp, cool areas such as marshes and wet woodland where its roots help to prevent soil erosion.
Seamus Heaney valued the Alder - here is his poem, “Planting the Alder” where he lists the reasons why you should plant it - its wood, its sounds, its smells, textures and colours, its beauty.
For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped And pigeon-collared. For the splitter-splatter, guttering Rain-flirt leaves. For the snub and clot of the first green cones, Smelted emerald, chlorophyll. For the scut and scat of cones in winter, So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle. For the Alder-wood, flame-red when torn Branch from branch. But mostly for the swinging locks Of yellow catkins. Plant it, plant it, Streel-head in the rain.
Alder wood can be used to make furniture, carved panels and utensils. Its colour fades with time to a pale, rich brown which was sought after by furniture makers, who gave Alder wood its nickname of ‘Scots mahogany’. Today it is commonly used to make timber veneers, pulp and plywood.
Alder used to be the preferred wood to make clogs. Alder clogs made in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, were worn by the workers in the National Botanic Gardens up to the 1950s.
It was said that a few Alder leaves placed in your shoes before a long journey would cool the feet and prevent swelling. Today, if we wish to remain inconspicuous in any situation, we should (according to folklore) place an Alder leaf in each of our shoes before we leave the house. As we put the shoes on, we are supposed to say:
Alder leaf inside each shoe Hide me one and hide me two. Grounded in your living green Where I walk I’ll be unseen.
If any of you try this, let me know……
It reminds me of the joke:
Sergeant: Murphy, I didn’t see you at camouflage training this morning. Murphy: Thank you, Sir.
Alder is also used for musical instruments such as harps, panpipes and flutes. Whistles made from Alder wood are said to summon the wind and enlist the help of benevolent water spirits; and since 1956, the guitar manufacturer Fender has been using Alder to build the bodies of its electric guitars, including the legendary Stratocaster.
Alder wood burns cleanly, without crackling, and is prized for smoking salmon. Smoke from Alder fires was used for divination, as was the movement of the flames. Its intense heat makes it good for charcoal which is used to burn incense for ceremonial magic; or for forging weapons, and some Bronze Age archaeological finds have revealed that our early ancestors used Alder. It is also used to make gunpowder.
Alder is good for dyes: three colours can be obtained: brown from the twigs, red from the bark and green from the flowers. You should harvest in summer when the sun is actively shining on the tree at the warmest time of day. Both the bark and the wood contain tannin, used for tanning leather. Once it has been cut down, the pale wood of Alder turns deep orange and releases an orange-red sap: this makes it look like the Alder is bleeding and this phenomenon convinced early warriors of its power: the blood of the Alder spirit would act as a talisman and prevent their own blood loss. This belief complemented the idea that Alder was the tree of prophecy and sacrifice, and a shield made from its wood imbued the warrior with ferocity and protection in combat.
Dyes made from Alder flowers can colour fabric for garments: in fact, according to folklore, fairies’ clothes were dyed with Alder pigment to conceal them from human eyes. The green dye from the flowers was used to colour and camouflage the clothes of outlaws like Robin Hood.
An ancient Irish legend names Alder as the material from which the first man was forged. Certainly it is known, in herbalism and folk medicine, for its antimicrobial ability to soothe inflammation, fight infection and promote healing.
A decoction of tannin-rich Bark of Alder can be used as a mouthwash or gargle to heal mouth ulcers or sore throats; or as a poultice to treat burns, wounds, acne, boils and inflammations (just chew up the plant and place directly on the wound).
Make an Alder tincture by cutting a few branches into small pieces (1cm long or so), place in a jar and cover with alcohol such as vodka and let sit for some days/weeks. The tincture will turn bright red over time. Strain the plant material before use. This tincture will be a godsend after you over-eat because Alder supports liver functions, such as the breakdown of wastes, and formation of bile to assist with fat digestion. You can mix your tincture with other bitter and aromatic plants like orange peel, chamomile and gentian as an aperitif.
You can also gently simmer the leaves in a little bit of water, let them cool, and then place the warm herbs over a wound or inflamed area; or saturate a dry face-cloth with the concentrated Alder tea and place it over your face for a sense of refreshment and renewal.
To support spiritual healing, visit an Alder tree and tune-in to its energy by sitting with your spine against the trunk, or hug the tree for a good long moment. If a raven should appear, consider it a very magical omen and you can increase your chances of this happening by placing a shiny object near the tree, such as a mirrored bead or a silver coin.
And the Alder doesn’t just heal humans; one of its greatest gifts is its ability to heal our land. Alders add nitrogen to the earth (from their roots) and rich hummus (from their leaves) creating fertile ground and conditioned soil for other trees and plants. They will self-seed on former industrial wasteland and brownfield sites, replenishing the soil and re-establishing harmony and richness in the landscape. The tree’s Greek name ‘klethra’ is derived from a word that means, “I embrace, I surround”.
And its ecological embrace extends to caterpillars, moths, mosses, lichens and fungi. Its catkins provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees, and the seeds are eaten by the siskin, redpoll and goldfinch. Alder roots make perfect nest sites for otters - while its twigs feed our native Irish red deer. One caveat - woodworm LOVE Alder and you don’t want to encourage these wee pests.
However much they loved the qualities of its wood, the Irish traditionally considered it unlucky to pass an Alder tree on a journey. Waterlogged Alder woods are called carrs, and these wet and swampy places were thought to have a mysterious atmosphere. Nonetheless, when Deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover, Naoise fled from Ulster to Alba (Scotland), to escape the wrath of King Conchobhar mac Nessa (to whom Deirdre had been betrothed) they chose the Alder Woods of Glen Etibhe as their hideout….
The old Gaelic word for Alder is ‘feàrn / feàrnog’, and there are plenty of occurrences of this in place names throughout Ireland (and Scotland) in constructions such as ‘the place of the Alders’, ‘valley of the Alder’, ‘ford of the Alders’ etc. Examples include Ballynafern (County Down), Fernagh (County Antrim), Fernaghandrum (County Tyrone), Mullafernaghan (County Down), Ferney (County Fermanagh), Fernagrevagh (County Armagh), Ferns (County Wexford), Gleann Fearna (County Leitrim), Borrisnafearney (County Tipperary), Ballyfarnon (County Roscommon).
Finally, this beautiful video from the Woodland Trust shows a year in the life of an Alder tree.