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A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.

Alder

Alnus glutinosa

Herbs gallery - alder.jpg

Common names

  • Alder
  • Black Alder
  • Common Alder
  • English Alder
  • European Alder
  • Fever Bush
  • Owler
  • Winter Berry

Alder is a deciduous tree belonging to the birch family of the genus Alnus. While this genus includes approximately 30 species of trees and shrubs, the alder tree found in Europe may grow up to a height of even 100 feet. The branches of the tree extend to a curved top, while the leaves are wide, large, alternate and serrated. The leaves of alder are about four inches long and have a profound lustrous green hue at the top, while they are light and sultry below. The alder trees bear both male and female flowers in unattached clusters or catkins (a spike of unisexual, apetalous flowers having scaly, usually deciduous bracts) resembling cones during the month of March. While the male flowers are greenish-yellow, the female blossoms have a reherbs_alder_red.htmddish hue. The fruits of the tree also grow in smoothed cone-type structures. The fruits are green during summer and turn brown and woody during the fall. The red alder trees look a lot like the European tree, but bear egg-shaped, roundly jagged leaves.

Alder trees are often found growing in dense thickets or coppices that are able to provide winter shade for cattle on highland grazing grounds with no apparent harm to the grass growing underneath. The trunk of these trees can be felled for use as poles once in every nine or ten years.

The timber from the alder trees is used extensively. When the alder trees are immature, they are fragile and it is easy to work on them. As the wood becomes mature it becomes hued and veined. For instance, the timber of the alder trees found in the mountainous regions of Scotland are still utilized for making attractive chairs and is also referred to as 'Scottish mahogany'. This timber possess the features of enduring water, in fact can withstand being under water for long period, and is also valuable for trenches, pumps, sluices and especially for piles. During the 16th century, timber from alder was particularly used for piles in Venice and was also extensively used in Holland and France.

The roots of the alder tree as well as their joints provide excellent raw material for carpenters, especially those who make cabinets. In addition, the demand for the roots and knots is great, often surpassing the supply, for making blocks in Lancashire mill towns as well as the southern regions of Scotland. When there is a deficiency of these materials, people have to do with birch. The timber of the alder tree is also made use of for making cart wheels, spinning wheels, wooden heels, bowls, spoons, herring-barrel staves (pieces of thin slats of wood forming the sides of a barrel or bucket) and so on. In Europe, the wood from the alder tree is extensively used for making cigar boxes, as its reddish hue and the wood resembling cedar is best suited. When the alder wood is placed in marshy lands, the timber retains its hue, but not the solidity of ebony. In addition, the branches of the elder tree are useful as a charcoal that is important for making gunpowder. On the other hand, the bark of the alder trees is utilized by tanners, dyers and leather dressers. In addition, the bark of the tree is also used for making nets of fishermen. The alder tree is preferred for using as pilings and posts in the construction of bridges and sluice gates, for water channels as well as manufacture of wooden shoes primarily owing to the timber's outstanding ability to confront wet rotting.

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For several centuries, herbal medicine practitioners have used the brew prepared with the bark and leaves of the alder tree as a substitute to quinine as well as an astringent to treat fevers and inflammations respectively. In addition, the leaves and branches of the alder are known to act as effective natural pesticides. Even the inner bark of the tree has therapeutic value. When the solution prepared by boiling the inner bark of the alder in vinegar and massaged on the body, it helps to eliminate lice and scabies mites as well as dries up scabs (crust-like surface of healing skin lesions).

The Oregon or red alder resembles the European alder and is found growing in nature in some parts of eastern North America. The Oregon or red alder and the European alder also possess similar properties. In addition to their therapeutic value, alders are also useful in enriching the soil as the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are found inhabiting around their roots.

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Parts used

Bark, leaves.

Uses

The alder is extensively used as a mouthwash and gargle for throat, gum and tooth problems owing to its astringent properties. A decoction prepared with the bark of the alder has a drying action and is useful for tightening the mucous membranes as well as alleviate inflammation. In addition, this decoction may also be used to stop internal as well as external bleeding and also to cure injuries. As mentioned earlier, a medication prepared with the leaves of the alder is also an effective wash for scabies (a contagious skin infection caused by the itch mite). People in Spain curve the leaves of the alder and put them on the soles of aching feet. Herbalists often recommend the alder leaves for nursing mothers to help them lessen the breast inflammations.

The European alder as well as the Oregon or red alder possess natural chemicals that are useful for dyers and tanners. Both these species of the alder also supply wood for smoking fish and mutton as well as making pilings in damp places. In addition, the timber of the red alder is useful for making furniture.

The bark of the alder is combined with copperas (ferrous sulfate) and applied as a foundation for black dyes. When used alone, the bark of the tree dyes woolen clothes giving them a reddish hue called 'Aldine Red'. The natives of Lapland called Lapps chew the bark of the alder and use the saliva to pigment garments made with leather. You are able to dye a profound boue de Paris with a solution prepared with an ounce of dehydrated and powdered bark of the alder simmered in three-fourth of a pint of water along with an equal proportion of logwood and a solution of six grains of tin, copper and bismuth each and two drops of iron vitriol.

The bark as well as the young shoots of the alder provides a yellow dye and if you add a tad of copper to it, they provide a yellowish-gray dye. This yellowish-gray dye is useful in half-tones and silhouettes of flesh in tapestry. If the shoots of the alder are cut in March, they will provide a cinnamon colored dye, but when they are dehydrated and powdered, they provide a yellowish-brown or orange shade. On the other hand, freshly cut wood of the alder provides a pinkish-brown or pinkish-fawn coloring, while the catkins provide a green dye. Even the leaves of the alder are used for tanning leather. The dye prepared from the alder leaves is slimy and it is said that if this dye is put out in a room, it will catch fleas on its viscous exterior.

A decoction prepared with the bark of the alder is an effective medication to wash swelling and inflammations, particularly of the throat. This decoction is said to heal ague (a fit of shivering or shaking). Farmers inhabiting the Alps are said to use the alder leaves to alleviate rheumatism. These farmers heat bag full of the alder leaves and place them on the affected areas. The alder leaves are consumed by different animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and horses. However, swine refuse to eat the alder leaves. According to some people, consumption of the alder leaves is harmful for the horses as they result in their tongues becoming black.

The bark of the alder trees possesses curative, cathartic, astringent, febrifuge (fever alleviating) and stimulant or tonic properties. Here is a word of caution. Ingesting the fresh bark of the tree may result in nausea and vomiting and hence it is advisable to dry the bark and then use it for emetics. A decoction prepared with the bark of the alder is used to wash engorgements and inflammations and it is especially effective for curing problems of the mouth and throat. The powdered form of the bark is also used internally as a tonic as well as an astringent. In addition, the bark is also used externally as well as internally to stop hemorrhage. Usually, the dehydrated bark of young branches or the inside barks of branches that are about two to three years old are used for therapeutic purposes. Normally, the bark is collected during the spring, dried and then stored for later use.

As mentioned earlier, using a herbal product prepared by boiling the inside bark of the alder in vinegar is effective to eliminate lice as well as treat an assortment of skin conditions, for instance scabs and scabies. In addition, this solution may also be used as a tooth wash to alleviate tooth and gum problems. The leaves of the alder have astringent properties and are useful as galactogogue (helps in increasing milk yield in humans and animals) and vermifuge. A decoction prepared with the alder leaves forms an excellent medication to treat breast inflammations in nursing mothers. According to records, ancient herbalists also recommended a decoction of the alder leaves to cure cancer of the face, throat, tongue, duodenum, esophagus, breast, rectum, pancreas, pylorus and uterus. The alder leaves are collected during the summer and always used fresh.

The alder trees are capable of enduring clipping as well as marine climatic conditions. These trees may be cultivated in a windbreak (shelterbelt) or hedge to prevent the force of wind. The alder trees adapt to the conditions fast and the young trees also develop rapidly, almost growing about one meter or more in a year. Hence, the alder is an outstanding species that may be planted earlier while trying to reinstate forestlands or abandoned farmland and other problematic soils that do not support vegetation easily. The fact that the alder grows at a rapid pace means that it is able to provide secluded conditions to enable more lasting forest trees to be established and grow. Besides, as nitrogen-fixing bacteria colonize at the roots of the alder trees, they are able to enrich the soil and thereby, help the proper growth of other varieties of vegetation, which are, otherwise, unable to thrive in poor soil conditions, in their vicinity. The alder trees also provide an important leafy shade to the plants growing below and when these leaves fall during autumn, the leaves help to increase the amount of humus present in the soil.

While the alder trees may be used as a pioneering plant to re-establish woodlands and abandoned farmlands, the seedlings of this species are not able to grow well in shady conditions, especially in the woodlands. As a result, the seedlings die diminishing the number of alder trees in a forest, while other trees take its place. Nevertheless, the alder is excellently suited for land reclamation projects as they can grow in poor soil conditions and also because a specific bacteria help form nitrogen nodules at the root of these trees. In addition, the alder may also be utilized as a resource of biomass. In the mountainous regions in tropical lands, cultivation of alder may be considered for use as firewood.

The dehydrated and powdered form of the alder tree bark is widely used as constituents of toothpastes. Many people even chew sticks prepared from the bark as tooth cleaners. The alder bark also yields a type of ink as well as an orange-red colorant, while a green pigment is obtained from the catkins of the alder. The fresh green wood yields a pinkish-beige dye, while a yellowish pigment is obtained from the alder bark as well as young branches. However, if the alder shoots are harvested in the month of March, they yield a cinnamon pigment. And when the same shoots are dried and powdered, they provide a yellowish-brown colorant.

The alder bark as well as the fruits borne by the tree encloses as much as 20 per cent tannins. However, since the leaves and the bark of this species also contain considerable amount of pigments (especially a deep red colorant), the use of the tannins enclosed in them is restricted. Even the leaves of the alder enclose considerable amount of tannin. As discussed earlier, the leaves of this tree are sticky in nature and if they are put out in a room, their gelatinous surface will catch flies and fleas. The timber obtained from the alder is very resilient in water and, therefore, is generally used in places where they are likely to remain in water for long periods. As the alder wood is soft, flexible, somewhat light, they can be easily worked on as well as split. In addition, the alder wood is also extensively used for making furniture, wood cuttings, clogs, pencils and bowls. In fact, cabinet makers value this wood very much. Finally, the alder wood also makes superior quality charcoal.

Habitat and cultivation

The alder tree is indigenous to Europe, Asia as well as North Africa. This species grows well in moist locations and also along the banks of rivers. The bark and leaves of the tree are harvested during spring. The alder has a preference for heavy soil in moist conditions and is able to endure long periods of submergence of its roots and can even thrive in conditions where the depth of water is around 30 cm for a long time. When the alder plants are young and grown in relatively arid locations, they grow very fast, sometimes even growing more than a meter in a year. However, the fact is that the alder cannot thrive for long in such arid conditions. They grow best in heavy clay soils and are also able tolerate lime and poor soil conditions. In fact, the alder can adapt itself in an assortment of soil conditions, but has a preference of pH over 6. As the alder trees are able to endure submergence of their roots for long periods, they are also comfortable in marine locations. According to a rough estimate, the alder can tolerate an annual rainfall ranging between 40 cm and 200 cm, a mean annual temperature varying between 8°C and 14°C and a pH extending from 6 to 8.

It is interesting to note that though the alder is a deciduous tree, its leaves usually continue to have a green hue while they are on the tree till November. Sometimes, the leaves are green even for longer periods on the young seedlings. The seeds of the alder enclose an edge of air-filled tissue and can float on water for as many as 30 days before they turn drenched. This particular aspect of the alder seeds helps them to be scattered far and wide by mans of water. During the initial period, the alder plants grow very fast and trees that are about five years old are often grow as tall as four meters. The alder trees share a symbiotic relation with some soil microorganisms, especially certain types of bacteria, which help to form nitrogen lumps on the roots. These nitrogen nodules help to enrich the soil where the species grows. While some of this nitrogen is utilized by the alder trees, the remaining amount is shared by plants and trees growing nearby.

The alder trees habitually produce adventitious roots from close to the bottom of the stem and these roots provide supplementary prop up where the soil is unsteady, especially when the trees grow in waterlogged locations. The alder trees are able to endure a lot of cuttings and there was a period when people had grooves of this species, as the timber from alder is useful in various ways. In addition, the alder trees form vital food plant for caterpillars of different species of butterflies and moths as well as some small birds during the cold winter months. It is surprising to note that altogether as many as 90 species of insects are related to the alder tree. It may be mentioned here that some varieties of the alder trees are very popular and preferred by people for their decorative value.

The alder trees are propagated by seeds. The best time to sow the alder seeds is immediately after they are mature. Sow the seeds in a cold frame and cover them slightly. Provided the seeds are not covered, the seeds sown during spring will germinate as soon as the weather gets warmer with the approaching summer. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently so that they can be handled, take them out carefully and plant each of them in separate pots. And if the seedlings have grown significantly, they may be planted in their permanent positions outdoors during the summer. On the other hand, if the seedlings have not developed sufficiently, allow them to remain in the pots outdoors. You may plant such seedlings in their permanent places outdoors during the next spring. The alder trees produce huge number of seeds every year, but only a small fraction of them can germinate. As mentioned earlier, water is an important mode for distribution of the alder seeds. And seeds that float on water continue to be viable for germination for around 12 months.

In order to facilitate the germination of the alder seeds, they should be sowed and kept in constant darkness as with average day lengths. It has been found that when the alder seeds were dehydrated by air and preserved at temperatures ranging between 1°C and 2°C, they are viable for germination for as many as 24 months. However, the seeds may be sown as soon as they are mature. If there is an adequate amount of seeds, some of them may also be sown sparsely in a seed bed outdoors during spring. In this case, the seedlings may be planted in their fixed positions outdoors during autumn or winter or they may be left untouched growing in the seed bed for another season before they are planted in their permanent positions outdoors. Some people also grow the alder from the tree cuttings. In this case, autumn is the best time for preparing cuttings from mature alder tree. Remember to undertake the job as soon as the tree begins to shed its leaves in autumn. Place the cuttings in damp sandy soil outdoors for new plants to emerge.

Constituents

Chemical analysis of the alder tree has confirmed that it encloses around 10 per cent to 20 per cent tannin, lignans, an anthraquinone called emodin and glycosides. The bark as well as the immature shoots of the tree enclose around 16 per cent to 20 per cent of tannic acid.

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