The Thirteen Trees
Ogham Moon Calendar
The Five Trees
The Half Year
The Sacred One
Original artwork © Ruby Clark 2011
This is the wonderful music of the alder flute below - stop or restart above
The magical tree of Bran, King or God of the Celts, the alder never stands far from water. It is common in eurpoean forests and woods where there’s a river bank, a lake edge, a winding stream or marshy meadow land.
Alders in New Forest (picture: Wikipedia Commons)
The magic of the Fearn (pronounced verern) is that it spans the space between earth and water, with its roots in the two elements – so – that faery space of betwixt and between.
Common alder (Alnus glutinosa) is a deciduous, medium height tree sometimes up to as much as 90ft, growing quickly but only living to around one hundred and fifty years. Small groups of alder - ‘alder carrs’ - sometimes form, but they usually grow in narrow bands, standing side-by-side, winding their way along the streams.
The trees often have more than one rough, grey-barked trunk and when an original tree dies, new shoots may form at its base. Among the many British places carrying the alder name from centuries past are Aldreth in Cambridgeshire and Alderford in Norfolk.
Young bark, and fresh leaves are slightly sticky, hence the name ‘glutinosa’. .
A ‘pioneer’ tree, alder is the first to colonize wet, treeless ground. It is welcomed there as a great soil improver, nodules of a special bacterium taking nitrogen from the air and enriching the soil through its deep roots, which also bring stability to banks and greatly reduce erosion.
Fresh alder leaf buds in March
Alder trees are also important in the ecology of wetlands as their matted roots, growing out into the water give shelter to inumerable fish and invertebrates, their quickly rotting leaves providing nutrients for the underwater colonies.
Above the damp ground, the grey, rather delicate looking branches and dark green, round, tooth-edged leaves play host to unusual mosses and lichens, to insects, and a special moth – the Alder Kitten Moth (Furcula bicuspis).
|Alder Kitten Moth - photo: Alan Kimber|
In spring, the tree flowers, male and female in the one plant (this is known as monoecious). The male ones grow as long, purplish-golden catkin tassels, while the female flowers develop as tiny cones of about 5 - 7mm. These are round and green at first, opening to shed their minute winged seeds, and turning woody and darkest brown.
The little seeds often fall into the water where they float, to be carried miles along the streams to germinate.
Alder is the only British native deciduous tree to have cones, and they stay on the tree through the winter and into next spring, so you see the long catkins plus the new green and the old brown cones on the branches at the same time, before the fresh leaves appear.
Alder wood is oily and water resistant turning very hard when underwater, so it’s been used since earliest times to make piles, foundations and stilts for platforms, bridges, lake-dwellings and roads.
The best known example of this was the building of 16th century Venice in its shallow Venetian Lagoon.
Use indoors was not encouraged as the oil impregnated wood was a magnet for woodworm. The wood has a wonderful soft amber colour, with darker streaks and markings and when treated is much prized by cabinet makers and for decorative objects.
Because of its waterproof property it was (and is) used to make clogs. The wood is also gives the finest charcoal, which can be used in gunpowder.
Different parts of the tree were commonly used for dying textiles and leather. The bark makes a special colour known as Almine Red and some trees seem to ‘bleed’ red-orange sap when cut. The cones will give a black dye and the inner green bark layer gives dull yellow.
Alder Healing and Medicine
|Alder from Gerrard’s Herball 1597|
The short description in John Gerrard’s Herball of 1597 tells us that: the leaves and bark are much used against hot swellings, ulcers and all inward inflammations, especillay of the Almonds and kernels of the throat
The bark is much used of poor country diers, for the dying of course cloth, caps, hose and such like into a black colour,whereunto it serveth very well.'
Using the leaves alone, a paste made of crushed leaves was useful when spread on to burns and a cloth bag, filled with alder leaves and warmed, was said to alleviate the aches of rheumatism and muscular back pain, or to dry breast milk. The cones were used in the west country to brew a drink which apparently cured gout.
The juice from fresh green under-bark was mixed with goose grease and smeared on the chest for relief of colds. Native American Indians used the bark from the roots as a more powerful alternative, which was also drunk as an emetic and a purge.
The fresh, young leaves are slightly sticky, and were hung in bunches in the kitchen, or strewn on the floor of chicken sheds or dog kennels to attract and catch insect pests.
Click image for supplier (USA)
Still used in herbal medicine as an astringent, the inner green bark is stripped out and simmered until very soft. This is left to stand for a few hours or overnight and then strained. The liquid is used as a wound-wash, or soaked into a poultice and applied to a wound or swelling externally.
This decoction, or the fresh juice squeezed from green bark and leaves can also be used as a wash to relieve itching in athlete’s foot type of fungal infections and on skin rashes
A tea made from the leaves and / or bark may relieve symptoms in any thoat infection including tonsillitis. It's difficult to find a British supplier, but very easy to do yourself.
It is bitter tasting, so adding a little honey can be useful with any throat problem. This tea, strained and cold can be used as a gargle for sore throats and a wash for mouth ulcers and sore gums.
A concentrated essence of Alder is available from wildmedicine.co.uk
from Robert Graves' version of 'Cad Goddeu' -'The Battle of the Trees' See my Ogham Intro page.
Alder Religion, Spirituality and Folklore
Element: Water, Fire, Earth and Air Ruling Planet: Venus
There isn’t a vast amount folklore associated with the watery alder trees. The Greek Gods Cronos and Phoroneus both held Alder to be sacred, and in Greek mythology Alder is a representative of fire.
Harlech Castle - built in 1228 overlooking the spot where King Bran met the Irish King Mallowych.
Painting by Henry Gastineau
The chief tale is one from pre-christian Wales and concerns Bran, known as ‘The Blessed’ who can be Bran, King of Britain – ‘The Mighty Kingdom’, or a Bran the God, or a Bran the Giant or all three.
The Alder is his sacred staff – his bird is the raven. Alder rules the 4th Lunar month of the Ogham Tree Calendar, as does the Raven for the the 4th Lunar month of the Ogham Bird Calendar.
You can read
'Branwen. Daughter of Llyr'
fully in the book of Welsh tales,
first written down in the thirteenth century.
Bran the Blessed or Bendigeidfran, gave his sister - beautiful Branwen - to be married to the King of Ireland – King Mallolwch - and she duly gave birth to a son, who she called Gwern - meaning Alder in welsh.
Alder in February, lining the banks of the stream
near Hurst Wood, Charing.
After a while Bran’s step-brother Evnissyen, for a second time began to stir trouble between Bran, Branwen and her King, and King Mallowych banished her from his court, making her work as a servant. Bran, hearing about his sister’s ill treatment, leads an army to invade Ireland.
A knight reported to King Mallolwch that there was a forest grown in the sea and the King took this as a sign that Bran was at their shores (since Bran’s symbol is the alder and it is the alder which can grow in water) and the trees were his army. So the Irish King was ready for him and destroyed the bridge across the River Linon, but Bran, being a giant, laid himself down across the river and the army passed over.
The 'Two Kings' staue at Harlech - Bran, bringing home the remains of his nephew Gwern, and depicting the futility of war.
Peace was made in which King Mallolwch, feeling remorse for his treatment of Branwen, decided to pass Kingship of Ireland to their son Prince Gwern. But the step-brother Evnissyen picked the boy up and swung him into the great hall fire in front of all the court where he was burned to death.
There was a grievous commotion and a battle began. In the carnage Bran is severely wounded, and he orders his men to cut off his head and carry it with them in a long retreat back through Wales to London.
He promised that he would still be with them, talk, sing and lead.
After decades in exile, which Bran had forseen, the spell which kept them in Wales was broken. His head was buried at White Hill, outside the Tower of London and the Ravens of Bran are there to this day – guarding the fate of England.
The Câd Goddeu in the Book of Taliesin (see more here on my website) tells of a riddle in ‘The Battle of the Trees’, where the name of Bran was worked out as an answer because ‘The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;’ and ‘The high sprigs of alder are in thy hand:’
Robert Graves, in ‘The White Goddess’ explains that "Bran's name was guessed by Gwydion from the sprigs of alder in his hand, because though 'Bran' and Gwern, the word for 'alder' used in the poem, do not sound similar, Gwydion knew that Bran, which meant 'Crow' or 'Raven', also meant 'alder' - the Irish is fearn, with the 'f' pronounced as 'v' - and that the alder was a sacred tree.’
'Queen of the Skies' by Julia Jeffrey
Dark Legends - and Ancient Magic
Of course, it’s always been known (especially amongst the old-ones) that alder trees in the most primeval, remote and wild sites, have fairy or elf doors in their trunks just above the water line, and these are entrances into faere kingdoms, gateways into the Underworld.
Dark and mysterious faeries live in these places, and when they don’t want to be seen, they’ll fly from the branches as crows, or even take the form of a raven.
Listen closely and you will hear the music of the alder flute floating through the door cracks, winding its way through the topmost ‘singing’ branches out to the stars.
One tree here will perhaps be the home of the Elven King, and the amber coloured sap that rises in late spring is known as elf-blood.
Much thought needs to be given when cutting from the alder, for they can also hold the spirits of the drowned, lured to their watery graves by wil-o-the wisps over the marshes and trapped in deeper water by the roots of the water trees. An old superstition from Somerset tells of the care to be taken if passing an alder carr at night, you may never be seen again because – “they’ll keep ee.”
The faere folk also use the tree to make dyes for their clothes, loving the shade of green that can be coaxed from the catkins and green cones. Even witches know how to mix the dried bark with madder to make scarlet life-dyes for their ribbons and cords.
Is the Alder
A perfect Alder Leaf pendant, and a necklace with aquamarine, hand-crafted in solid silver are now in the
Click link for more details
Alder Magic, Charms and Beliefs
Take care with Alder use in any magical workings – the tree blends all four power elements and can be unpredictable and fickle in the extreme. If you need to pick from the tree, it is essential to leave a gift in return, or to care for the environment round about.
Alder Fairy - illustration
* Alder wands are used in resurrection ceremonies (the resurrection of spring from the cold of winter for example) and are a good choice for use in the northern European rituals and celebrations of Walpurgis night (the eve of May – April 30th).
The wood is very tactile and beautiful, deepening to an amber-pink blush, often with darker streaks of ‘elf-blood’.
* Make an incense to burn when wanting to disperse negative feelings – use
2 spoons dried alder bark mixed with a little lavender, adding other suitable ingredients if and as you wish. (Benzoin would have correct associations as a fixing resin).
* Form a little amulet with an equal armed cross of alder wood, adding the cones if you have them, and carry it to help with doubt or fear in a stressful situation. Any part of the tree used as a charm (if gathered correctly) will bring courage.
A larger one makes an attractive and meaningful decoration. (Find out how to make the Alder Cross here on my Magic and Charms page)
The beautufl flute on the right is called 'The Raven Totem', hand made with Alder wood.. It is from
Thomas Richardson Music.
Hear this very flute playing at the link above.