Its trunk, branches and leaves host many insects and lichens; the Alder even has its own moth, the Alder Kitten Moth. Alder seeds travel downstream on currents to pollinate. The Alder tree is also linked with war and battle: its red sap reminiscent of blood; its charcoal used to forge weapons; and its wood used to make shields. For this reason, it is both a protector (shield) and a warrior (weapon). The red sap has also been connected to its nurturing qualities however, by ‘bleeding’ the Alder is giving to the world.
Whistling up the wind
The Celts saw that the Alder resided in the magical space of ‘betwixt and between’ straddling both earth and water, but it was also linked to the Air element. Flutes, whistles and pipes were made from Alder wood: the pithy centre of green branches is easily removed to make a hollow cylinder that can then be bound to other branches. The custom of ‘whistling up the wind’ is linked to this practice.
Though it burns poorly, the Celts believed that the Alder contained a sacred fire within, because its wood turned orange when cut. This beautiful colouring means the wood is much prized by cabinet makers and decorative woodworkers. The burnt wood makes a high-grade charcoal which was considered sacred and used to create Celtic metalwork. A red dye made from the sap was used by spinners and weavers to create coloured cloth.
An elemental tree
As is to be expected with a tree which grows beside water, Alder wood doesn’t rot when wet but becomes hardened. For this reason, early British settlers used Alder to build strongholds on boggy land, and Venice was founded upon Alder wood. Its oily wood can be found in the construction of bridges, lake-dwelling platforms and submerged stilts. It was also a popular wood for boats, water barrels, clogs, weather boards, cart wheels and water pumps. Custom suggests that one needs to be careful when cutting Alder wood however, as it is protected by water faeries. Because the Alder tree is linked to all four elements (Earth: root system, Fire: red sap and catkins, Water: grows by rivers etc., Air: custom of making whistles) its magickal properties are said to be potentially fickle so caution is advised.
Alder bark was traditionally used to treat inflammation, rheumatism, and diarrhoea. Both leaves and bark were combined to heal mouth ulcers and sore throats. Alder leaves were placed in cloth bags and warmed for muscular aches and pains, and to dry out breast milk. The fresh leaves are very cooling and can be used for burns or tucked inside shoes to soothe swollen, hot feet. Fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, also respond well to an Alder leave treatment. For sore throats, Alder leaves can be added to boiling water and brewed. Add honey to taste which will also help to soothe the throat. You can also use this tea to clean the mouth if suffering from inflamed gums or mouth ulcers.