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Thursday, June 23, 2011
ANCIENT ALDER TREE - HISTORY, LEGENDS AND HEALTH BENEFITS
The alder likes to grow near water, rivers, streams and lakes and is found in company with willows and birch trees. It is a member of the birch family, Betulaceae. The root system of the alder may be exposed in water and make safe havens for fish wishing to escape predators, or in stormy weather they shelter under the roots of the alder. Like the hazel tree, the male flowers of the alder are catkins, while the female flowers resemble small fir cones. These begin by being green, but by October they have become brown and woody, ready to eject the two winged seeds that are found inside them. The twigs can be sticky to touch, which is how it got its Latin name glutinosa.
This tree is native to most of Europe and Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in North Africa, and can also be found in the Caucasus region, and Iran, and Turkey. It was introduced into North America where it has become naturalized in north-eastern USA and eastern Canada. It can reach height of up to 25 metres and lives on average for 150 years. However when a trunk dies, young shoots often spring up from the base.
Green dye can be obtained from the flowers and this colour has been associated with faeries and those, like Robin Hood who used the green dye to camouflage themselves. In Irish legend, Deidre of the Sorrows eloped with Naoise the son of Usna and the couple fled from Ulster to Scotland where they hid from King Conchobhar mac Nessa, to whom Deidre was betrothed, in an alder wood. Alder woods are synonymous with hiding places as they tend to grow in marshy ground where few would venture. The Irish used to consider it unlucky to see or pass an alder tree when they were on a journey.
Alder wood is good for charcoal and was used by the ancient Celts to forge their weapons. The Irish and Norse peoples also considered the Rowan tree or Mountain Ash to be the female counterpart of the Alder, as Alder was the tree from which the first man was made and the first woman came from the rowan tree. However it is the willow that was considered the Alder King’s queen by the Celts. It was a tree much favoured by the Druids and was meant to give courage to warriors in battle and to symbolize royalty.
The Alder is the fourth month of the Celtic Tree Calendar which extends from 18th March – 14th April, and it was believed to be the doorway to faerie land. It is sacred to Bran who carried a branch of it into the Battle of Trees (Cad Goddeau) according to an ancient poem, said to have been written by Taliesin.
Because the wood from this tree is durable in water it has traditionally been made into pumps, troughs and sluices. Later, Alder wood was made into clogs, and it has been used to make spinning wheels, carts and various implements and furniture.
It is said that if you are hiking or walking a long way, alder leaves in your shoes will prevent your feet from getting tired. If you have rheumatism and sleep on a bed of alder leaves it will help. Alternatively a hot poultice can be made from the leaves and applied to relieve inflammation. A decoction made from the bark will reduce swelling and bruising although mallow will do this very well.
The inner bark of alder can be boiled with vinegar and used to clean teeth, remove head lice and get rid of scabies. A tisane can be made from 1 heaped tablespoon of leaves to a pint of boiling water and this can be used for skin problems and irritations, and to cure herpes. Decoctions from the leaves or bark (boil leaves or bark in water until the water has reduced by half) can be used as a gargle for sore throats, and can be applied to wounds to prevent infection and promote healing. This can also be used on burns.
The bark contains lignans, and tannins as well as phenolic glycosides, while the leaves have flavonoid glycosides among other constituents. As yet very little research has been done into the medical properties of the Alder, but it is thought to have anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiviral and astringent properties.