The Alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) is one of the sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft and was a favoured tree of the ancient Druids. According to the Celtic Tree Calendar (the Beth-Luis-Nion calendar, a reconstruction by Robert “von Ranke” Graves author of The White Goddess), the Alder tree is the fourth tree of the year and represents the period 18th March – 14th April. As such, it is associated with Ostara (21st March), one of the Lesser Witch’s Sabbats.
In folklore, the Alder tree is known as the “King of the Waters” and has the “Willow” tree as its Queen. This association is due to their natural habitat near lakes, rivers and streams. The Alder tree is native to the British Isles and continental Europe where it flourishes in temperate and cold climates. The leaves of the Alder are broadly ovate, stalked and usually smooth. It produces catkins (named for their resemblance to cat’s-tail) that are formed in the autumn, the fruiting ones having scales rather like tiny fir cones. The tree’s flowers appear in early spring before the leaves are fully out and its woody, nearly globular, female catkins are its so-called berries.
Alder trees are usually small in stature, but in perfect conditions can reach heights of 70 ft (21 meters). There are four stages of production on the Alder tree at any given time, the old cones of the previous year’s fruiting, the new year’s leaves or leaf-buds, and the new year’s male and female catkins. The tree matures at about 30 years of age at which time it is capable of producing a full crop of seeds. After this, it can live on to reach an age of about 150 years. It is also the only broad-leafed tree to produce cones. To the ancients, the Alder was particularly revered, for it appeared to bleed like humans. When an Alder tree is felled, its inner wood is white, but gradually over time it turns to a reddish-pink.
The wood of the Alder has many uses. When young it is brittle and very easily worked, while its mature wood is tinted and veined. Due to the Alder’s resistance to water, it was used in the construction of bridges, particularly the long heavy piles driven into the ground or sometimes under water to support it. This quality for long endurance under water also made it valuable for pumps, troughs and sluices for which purposes it is said to have been used in sixteenth-century Venice, as well as France and Holland.
The roots and knots of the Alder furnished good material for cabinet-makers. These were used for making clogs in old Lancashire mill-towns, however, demand exceeded supply and Birch had to be used instead. It was also used for making carts and spinning wheels, bowls, spoons, wooden heels and herring-barrel staves, etc. On the continent it was largely used for making cigar-boxes for which its reddish Cedar-like wood was well suited. After lying in a bog, the wood of the Alder has the colour but not the hardness of Ebony. In the Highlands of Scotland this 'bog Alder' was used for making handsome chairs from which it became known as 'Scottish Mahogany'. The branches of the Alder make a good charcoal, which was a valuable commodity for making gunpowder. Dyers, tanners and leather dressers used its bark commercially and fishermen use it for making nets.
In Celtic folklore, the Alder is associated with the fairies and it was believed that doorways to the fairy realm were concealed within its trunk. The Alder was sacred to the god 'Bran' who carried a branch of it with him during the 'Battle of the Trees' saga, an old Celtic legend. Bran’s totem animal was the Raven, which also became associated with the Alder. Ritual pipes and whistles were often made from Alder wood, many in the shape of the Raven. A Taliesin riddle once asked the question: “Why is the Alder purple?”, and the answer is because Bran wore purple into battle. In some Norse and Irish legends, the first man was formed from the Alder while the first women came from the Rowan.
Italian witches used to mix the sap from the Alder tree with that of the madder plant, a Eurasian plant (Rubia tinctorum of the family Rubiaceae) to produce red dyes. These were then used to colour ribbons, cords and sashes for use in magick and ritual. Ritual bags made of wool and dyed red have been highly prized by Italian witches since classical times. Also, in Italy, the wood of the Alder was used to light the fires for the spring festival at Ostara.
In dyeing, the Alder’s bark is used as a foundation for blacks with the addition of copperas. Alone, it dyes woollens a reddish colour (Aldine Red). The Laplanders chew it and dye leathern garments with their saliva. The young shoots of the Alder dye yellow, and with a little copper a yellowish-grey, which is useful in the half-tints and shadows of flesh in tapestry. The shoots cut in March will dye cinnamon, and if dried and powdered produce a tawny shade. The fresh wood yields a pinkish-fawn dye and the catkins a green dye. The leaves have been used in tanning leather. They are also clammy and, if spread in a room, are said to catch fleas on their sticky glutinous surface.
Alder acts as both a tonic and astringent. A decoction of the bark is useful to bathe swellings and inflammations especially of the throat and has been known to cure ague. Peasants on the Alps have been reportedly cured of rheumatism by being covered with bags full of the heated leaves. Placing Alder leaves in your shoes will ease weary feet, which is a useful tip for walkers and hikers. Alder leaves, if collected in the morning with the dew still upon them, are sticky and gummy, and if carried around the home will attract fleas and other nasty pests. Horses, cows, sheep and goats eat Alder leaves, which is said to turn their tongues black. Swine, however, refuse to eat it.
The Alder tree is known by the folk names: King of the Woods and Scottish Mahogany. Its deity association is with Bran. Its planetary ruler is Venus, and its associated elements are Fire and Water. The Alder is used to attract the powers needed for Protection, Divination, Oracles, Healing and anything to do with the element Water.
Astrologically, Alder people (i.e. those who were born in the month of March to April) are like the Phoenix—they rebuild after each defeat or set back. Being psychically aware, they tend to be oracles, but they need to be careful not to abuse their gifts. They can be brutal in their frankness, but are also kind. They might sometimes be in need of protection spiritually because others will envy what they have and try to use it or take it from them. As the Alder takes 30 years to mature, so too Alder people can be very immature, often making rash and poorly thought-out decisions for themselves.
Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham.
Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi.
The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
Tree Wisdom (The difinitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of Trees) - By Jacqueline Memory Paterson.
AA Book of Britain's Countryside.
The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).
Plus many websites to numerous to mention.
First published in February 2002 - Updated February 2009
© George Knowles
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In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar. For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following: Birch / Rowan / Ash / Alder / Willow / Hawthorn / Oak / Holly / Hazel / Vine / Ivy / Reed / Elder. Also see: The Willow Tree (Folk Music)
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