Lathrop’s Alders

by Barbara Walvoord

No, I didn’t say “elders.” We have those, too. Our alders are growing all over the place at Lathrop. You can see them at this time of the year because of their tiny cones and catkins, still in place on the bare branches.

At Lathrop, the alder I most commonly see is speckled alder (Alnus incana). It’s a small, shrubby tree, often with leaning branches, that grows at the edges of woods and meadows, especially where it’s wet–and we have plenty of that. At this time of the year, you’ll see three things on alder branches: the cone-like fruits, the drooping male catkins, and the buds that will bloom in early spring.

Alder trees harbor a bacterium on their roots that captures nitrogen and makes it available to the tree. In turn, the alder supplies the bacterium with sugars. By this process, alders fix nitrogen in the soil, enriching it for later species.

Alders are elders. They have grown across the ages in many parts of the world and have had many different uses and meanings. The Welsh goddess Bran carries alder branches in her arms, and alders may shelter fairies and wood sprites. Because alder wood hardens in water, it symbolizes strength. Most of the pilings that support Venice are made of alder. Native Americans used it in smoking mixtures. Alder shoots can be hollowed out to make whistles that call up spirits. The phrase “whistling up a wind” came from this practice.

Medicinal uses are many and ancient. You can cure fevers by eating burned alder ashes and then vomiting them up. (This column cannot give medical advice, but aspirin might be a better choice for fever). Alder bark can treat inflammation, rheumatism, and diarrhea. Bags filled with heated alder leaves help with chronic skin diseases and burns. You can gargle with a broth of leaves and bark to soothe tonsillitis and mouth sores. Alder oil relieves muscle stiffness.

Humans can eat the catkins of some kinds of alder, but we might prefer to leave our alder catkins to butterflies and moths, which feed on them, and also on the leaves. As we elders walk our land this winter, the alders make us think about the rich and ancient lives of our native plants.

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