Time once again for another in my British trees series, and I’m going to take a look at the alder…
“Its very existence seems to hang on the proximity of water.”
Gertrude Clarke Nuttall, ‘Trees and How They Grow’
If you’re walking along a river bank or by the side of a loch, it’s most likely that you will come across a grove of alder trees. Alders aren’t spectacular in the way that oak or beech trees can be: they don’t grow to a massive size, nor do they display brilliant colours in autumn. What they have is a strong affinity for water, and this element is woven into their life cycle as well as their properties.
Alnus glutinosa, the common or black alder, is the only native alder in Britain. It is widespread across most of Europe, and its range extends eastwards across Russia to Siberia, and south to Turkey and Iran. It was introduced to North America, probably in the 1600s, and has become naturalised in eastern Canada.
To ecologists the alder is a pioneer species, being one of the first trees to colonise clearings in a forest. Rarely does it grow to more than 70 feet or live longer than 150 years. This is a true water-lover, hugging the banks of rivers and lochs, and flourishing in damp meadows and boggy areas: if its roots are in water, the alder is happy.
Alder is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same tree. “Clusters of new and pointed female catkins typically develop over winter. These expand into green, cone-like structures during summer, blackening over winter. They release their tiny seeds the following year.” (Gabriel Hemery, ‘The New Sylva‘) More showy are the dangling male catkins, golden lambs’ tails that look like hazel at first glance – but on closer inspection you’ll see they are slightly shorter than hazel catkins, and more compact.
“When the seeds fall ripe from the parent tree and are seeking a lodgment, they are not furnished with wings or parachutes for flight, as are those of the sycamore or the poplar; but they are provided with airtight cavities inside their walls, so that they will float unharmed along the surface of the stream or lake… Sometimes they may be in the water all the winter; sometimes they do not fall till the spring, and their voyage is short; but one day it ends – perhaps the stream subsides a little – and they drift to the shore, and there in the soft mud they may germinate.”
‘Trees and How They Grow’ by G Clarke Nuttall (1913)
The oval – almost pear-shaped – leaves of alder are quite distinctive, being indented rather than pointed at the tip, which makes them easy to distinguish from hazel. They are bright green and deeply veined, often with a serrated edge.
While the mature bark can be brown or dark grey, young alder branches are smooth and often greenish in colour. New shoots may sprout naturally from the base of the trunk. Alder trees are often found in the company of birch and willow.
Alder is a food plant for several moths including the delightfully named alder kitten (its head, body and legs are just as furry as you’d imagine); alder catkins are an early source of nectar and pollen for bees, and the seeds are eaten by birds such as siskins and redpolls.
The alder has an important symbiotic relationship with a bacterium, Frankia alni, which forms nodules on its roots. These absorb nitrogen from the air and make it available to the tree; in return, the alder provides the bacteria with carbon. In this way, alder improves the fertility of the soil where it grows, creating nutrients for species that follow it onto new ground: “The nitrogen-fixing nodules on the alder’s roots improve soil fertility and so make this tree ideal for reclaiming degraded soils and industrial wastelands…” (Trees for Life)
“There are a sort of husbands who take excessive pains in stubbing up their alders, where-ever they meet them in the boggie places of their grounds, with the same indignation as one would extirpate the most pernicious of weeds; and when they have finished, know not how to convert their best lands to more profit than this (seeming despicable) plant might lead them to, were it rightly understood.”
John Evelyn, ‘Sylva’, 1664
As a wood, the great strength of alder is its resistance to decay, even under water – in fact, once it has been submerged, it gradually becomes as hard as stone. For this reason, ancient people chose it for building tracks and bridges over marshy ground, and crannogs stood on beds made of alder trunks. But once it is taken out of the water and exposed to the air, alder quickly begins to decompose.
“The cities of Venice and Amsterdam were built mostly upon alder timber piles.”
Gabriel Hemery, ‘The New Sylva’
The Ballachulish ‘goddess’
In 1880 a small but enigmatic female figure, carved from a single piece of alder with pebbles for eyes, was discovered in a peat bog known as Ballachulish Moss on the shore of Loch Leven. It is thought to date from somewhere between 728 and 524 BC, and is currently on display in the National Museum of Scotland.
Alder trees in place names
In England, names such as Allerton, Allerbeck and Ellerslie recall the existence of an alder wood. The old Gaelic word for alder is ‘feàrn’, and there are plenty of occurrences of this throughout Scotland and Ireland. The author Gavin Maxwell’s house was called ‘Camusfeàrna’, the ‘Bay of Alders’. The Welsh form is ‘gwern‘, sometimes mutated to ‘wern’, and these crop up so often in the east of Wales that historians have wondered whether alder trees were grown there commercially in medieval times, so that their timber could be sold to rich Norman estates in Herefordshire and Shropshire. The theory is that the wood may have been made into clogs for farm workers.
Waterlogged alder woods are called carrs, and this has also been preserved in some English place names.
THE ALDER IN FOLKLORE
‘Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high springs of alder on thy shield;
Bran thou art called, of the glittering branches.
Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of alder are in thy hand:
Bran thou art, by the branch thou bearest
Has Amaethon the Good prevailed!”
Traditional Welsh englyn associated with the Cad Goddeu (‘The Battle of the Trees’) in the Book of Taliesin
In the Welsh Mabinogion, the alder tree is the emblem of the Celtic giant-god, Bran. One story tells how Bran’s sister, Branwen, was being mistreated by her husband, Matholwch, the King of Ireland. Bran calls his men together and sets off to rescue her; when they come to the River Llinon, they find that the only bridge has been dismantled on the orders of the Irish king, so Bran lies down across the river to allow the men to pass over his body. This may be a reference to the alder’s natural empathy with water.
Alder was the tree of prophecy and sacrifice, and a shield made from its wood was believed to imbue the carrier with ferocity and protection in combat. Once it has been cut down, the pale wood of alder turns deep orange and releases an orange-red sap, and it may have been this phenomenon that convinced early warriors of its power: to them, it appeared that the alder’s spirit was bleeding and would thus prevent them from being wounded themselves. Warriors became deeply attached to their shields; in Irish mythology they were given individual names and believed to have magical powers in their own right.
However much they loved the qualities of its wood, the Irish considered it unlucky to pass an alder tree on a journey. This may derive from the fact that alder groves were usually dark, boggy places where evil spirits were thought to dwell. Given the widespread distribution of alder, I’m guessing that this must have led to some pretty roundabout routes! And just to compound the problem, it was also believed that putting some alder leaves in your shoes at the start of a long walk would cool the feet and prevent soreness. Plenty of careful planning must have been the secret here!
According to an Irish legend, the royal storyteller at the court of King Conchobar mac Nessa had a beautiful daughter named Deirdre. She was destined to marry the King, but she fell in love with Naoise, a handsome warrior. To escape the King’s wrath, Deirdre and Naoise fled across the sea to Scotland where they hid in the alder woods of Glen Etive.
But there was no happy ending: they were tracked down by Conchobar’s men who murdered Naoise and brought Deirdre back to Ulster where she was forced into marriage. One version of the story says that she took her own life by throwing herself from a chariot. Is there any more romantic name than Deirdre of the Sorrows?
Dyes made from alder flowers were once used to colour fabric for garments, and folklore says that fairies’ clothes were dyed with alder pigment to conceal them from human eyes. Three colours could be obtained: brown from the twigs, red from the bark and green from the flowers. Both the bark and the wood contain tannin, used for tanning leather.
Alder burns with an intense heat, making it an ideal fire for forging weapons, and some Bronze Age archaeological finds have revealed the use of alder to make charcoal. Smoke from alder fires was used for divination, as was the movement of the flames. On the living tree, omens were seen in the way the branches moved in the wind, and heard in the rustle of its leaves. Whistles made from alder wood are said to summon the wind and enlist the help of benevolent water spirits.
Since 1956, the guitar manufacturer Fender has been using alder to build the bodies of its electric guitars, including the legendary Stratocaster. (To be precise, the species used is the red alder, Alnus rubra, native to the west coast of America.) But who knew that the unmistakeable notes of Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton owed their tone to alder wood? Fender’s website explains: “It has a resonant, balanced tone brighter than other hardwoods… It imparts excellent sustain and sharp attack.”
Fresh alder leaves are said to make a good insect repellent, although I haven’t tried it myself. As a treatment for rheumatism, dried alder leaves may be placed in a bed or sewn into a cushion. It has antibacterial properties, and herbalists have prescribed it as a gargle for a sore throat. A decoction of alder bark was traditionally used to treat burns, wounds and inflammations, and alder tree essence is said to relieve anxiety and nervous tension.
“The alder is of all other the most faithful lover of watery and boggie places, and those most despised weeping parts, or water-galls of forests…”
John Evelyn, ‘Sylva’
- Trees for Life
- The Woodland Trust
- The Goddess Tree
- National Museum of Scotland
- BBC News
- UK Moths
- RCAHMS Canmore
- Fender Guitars
- ‘The New Sylva’ by Gabriel Hemery & Sarah Simblet (Bloomsbury, 2014)
- ‘Trees and How They Grow’ by Gertrude Clarke Nuttall (1913)
- ‘Celtic Tree Magic: Ogham Lore and Druid Mysteries’ by Danu Forest
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf