Tree Medicine, Magic and Lore: Alder

by Ellen Evert Hopman
illustration by Will Hobbs

Alder thrives in damp areas – wet lands, flood plains, river banks and moist lowlands, the types of places that ancient people commonly sought out for habitation. Ancient Celtic tracks and roads were made of its wood due to its ability to withstand rot. Alder was used in piles for lake dwellings, for water-mill wheels, house foundations, canal locks, milk pails and pipes. There was an ancient Celtic God named Alisanos, the Alder God. Alder was also known as “Bran’s Tree”. Bran is the ancestor God of the Celtic Cult of the Sacred Head. He was a Celtic hero who instructed his followers that after his death his head was to be placed on a pillar so that he could continue to give them counsel. Later they were told to bury his head at the White Mount, the site of the present Tower of London as a powerful talisman of protection.

As long as the head remained buried Alba would be safe from invasion. Arthur made a fatal mistake by digging up the head, the Saxons invaded not long after. But Bran’s sacred birds, the ravens, have dwelt at the site ever since.

Alder makes an excellent charcoal for gunpowder, smith’s fires, and potter’s ovens. It is a tree sacred to Phoroneus, inventor of fire, and to Astarte and Her son, the Fire God. Fresh cut Alder wood turns red as blood. The bark gives a red dye, the twigs a brown dye. The cones make a black dye and the inner bark of the root dies yellow.

Irish tradition states that the first man was created from an Alder, the first woman from a Rowan.

Alder bark is prepared for medicinal use by carefully scraping off the dead outer bark and using the green, living tissue underneath. Alder bark can be simmered in water to make a wash for very deep wounds. The leaves and bark are simmered into a bitter tea for tonsillitis and fever. The leaves are used in poultices to dry up breast milk.

The Penobscot Indians used Alder bark tea to stop cramps and vomiting and in a Seven Herbs formula that was taken before a sweat lodge ceremony. The seven herbs were; Alder bark, Witch hazel twigs, Fir twigs, Cedar branches, Sweet-flag, Prince’s-pine, Lambkill, and Brake. The Mohegan used Speckled Alder twigs in decoctions for sprains, bruises, headache, and backache. The inner bark of Alder is used in poultices to stop swelling. The fresh juice stops itching. Alder bark tea can be used in the vagina as a douche or in the rectum for hemorrhoids.

Alder leaves were once gathered while they were still damp with dew and used to cover the floors of a house plagued by fleas or other insects. Adhering to the leaves the insects died. Alder pollen is a favorite of bees. Grouse eat the leaves, buds and seeds, beaver and rabbit chew the bark.

about the author:

Ellen Evert Hopman is a Druid Priestess, herbalist and author of “Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey”, “A Druids Herbal – Of Sacred Tree Medicine”, “Walking the World in Wonder – A Children’s Herbal” and other volumes. Visit her website for more!

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