Latin name: Alnus glutinosa
Native words: Old Irish (fearn) Scots Gaelic (fearna) Old English (alor) Welsh (gwernen) eastern Celtic (werneth)
Ogham sign: F
Height when mature: 16-30m
Height after 10 years: 1-2m
Alder botanical description:
Recognisable for its purple sheen in spring, alder trees are one of our smaller native tree species. They have a light, delicate appearance, with grey bark, flecked with white. The leaves are round and toothed. The seeds develop in cones; in fact alder is the only British native deciduous tree to develop cones. Unlike the large varieties found on pine, those on alder trees are tiny and the seeds are spread by the wind being often carried down stream to germinate on the waters edge elsewhere. Throughout the winter the empty cones hang on the branches and from January – March the pale green male catkins stand out, emerging before the leaves, dangling in the wind. Female catkins are small round ball shaped bodies which lie behind the male catkins further back on the twigs The are purple at first, but turn brown before developing into the cones.
Alder natural history and ancient wisdom:
In the wild Alder is never far from with water. In lowland Britain, especially in the west, alder trees are the main native tree to be found along streams and small rivers. Alder trees also lie along streams and small river valleys in upland areas. Its second natural habitat is marshland or boggy ground which it encroaches onto forming woodlands known as alder carr. It grows best with its roots in water. Alder wood is water resistant and this quality meant its timber was used for specialist tasks. Clogs worn by mill workers farm workers and miners often working in damp conditions in Lancashire and Yorkshire were made from alder wood. Alder trees growing along streams were managed by coppicing, and the rods used to shore up banks. Many ancient alders are redundant coppices, the practice having died out in the last 100 years In Welsh legend alder was associated with the goddess Bran. The hero Gwydion recognised Bran when he saw her carrying alder branches. In Ireland felling alders was punishable because of the apparent ability of the trees to bleed red when cut. Alder, like yew, was a tree associated with death and alder rods would be used to measure corpses and graves. In Norse legend the first man and woman were made from ash and alder respectively. Herbalists and apothecaries used the bark of alder trees for purging: “the country people use it in intermittent fevers with success, because this remedy purges and vomits them vigorously and carries off the disease”. (Chambers Pocket Herbal, 1800)
Alder place names in the UK:
Not surprisingly associated with places near water or marshland Alrewas (Staffordshire) ‘alder wash’ similar to Alderwasley (Derbyshire) and Allerwash (Northumberland) Werneth Low ( low point where alder grows) Cheshire Alderford (Norfolk) ford where alders grow’ Aldreth (Cambridgeshire) ‘landing place where alders grow’ Aller (Dorset) ‘alder’.
Alder wildlife rating:
In winter, alder is sought out by flocks of Siskins and Redpoll, rarely seen, small but attractive finches. Both species feed on the seeds held within the miniature cones.
Alder good points/ bad points:
Alder trees grow best in very damp ground, and are often grown by lakes or large ponds. They can be grown elsewhere, but are susceptible to drought and will suffer in long periods of dry weather unless roots are in water. They are attractive light trees which do not require much ground and do not heavily shade out plants growing underneath.