Trees and Shrubs without Berrylike Fruits–Alder
Alder (Alnus species)
Other Names: mountain alder (Alnus crispa); Sitka alder (Alnus sinuata, also known as Alnus crispa subspecies sinuata); red alder, Oregon alder (Alnus oregona); white alder (Alnus rhombifolia); thin-leaf alder (Alnus tenufifolia also known as Alnus incana subspecies tenufifolia).
Birch Family: (Betulaceae).
Habitat and Range: Alders are common in open woods and in moist areas along creeks and rivers. These large, multiple–trunk shrubs form thickets that are hard to penetrate, except by bears and moose.
Mountain alder (Alnus crispa) ranges from Alaska and the Yukon south to British Columbia.
Sitka alder (Alnus sinuata) is a common Pacific Northwest species, ranging from western and southern Alaska and the southern Yukon to northern California.
Red or Oregon alder (Alnus oregona) grows from southern British Columbia to California.
White alder (Alnus rhombifolia) ranges from southern British Columbia to California.
Thinleaf alder (Alnus tenuifolia) ranges from central and southern Alaska and the Yukon to central California.
Physical Description: Alder: Alnus species: a: varies from prostrate shrub to 35-foot-high tree in northern latitudes; in mild areas to 70 feet; b: male and female flowers are on the same plant. Male catkins develop first, become long and drooping, and produce pollen; c: female flowers are upright. They develop into green fruits that become woody and conelike at maturity, remaining on the branches all winter; d: alder leaves vary from shiny (Alnus crispa and Alnus sinuata) to dull (Alnus oregona). Leaves have serrated edges.
Upright female flowers later develop into conelike fruits; drooping male catkins produce pollen. Summer–harvested leaves can be added to footbaths. (Recipe follows).
Alder: Smokes Salmon and Soothes Feet: Alder and devil’s club, which often share the same habitat in the Pacific Northwest, are probably responsible for more woodland profanity than any other plants. Both form nearly impenetrable thickets, making hiking downright hellish. Yet, in a way, they (together with mosquitoes, black flies, and other winged stingers and biters) are protectors of wilderness areas. They minimize human impact by enthusiastically discouraging entry into the land beyond the trail systems.
Harvest Calendar: Spring: catkins. Spring to late summer: leaves. Spring or fall: bark for medicinal purposes.
Food Use: Alder catkins are said to be a high–protein food source, but most taste buds recognize them as survival fare rather than as a woodland delicacy. They can be added to soups, dried and powdered as a spice, or nibbled raw.
MEDICINAL USE: Alder’s medicinal use has ancient origins. In 1640 Parkinson wrote that the ‘leaves and bark are cooling and drying. Fresh leaves laid on tumors will dissolve them.” In a 1973 study of the properties of Alnus oregona reported in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, scientists verified that the stem–bark of this species contains lupeol and betulin, compounds that suppress tumor activity.
Alder leaves and dried inner bark are bitter; they act on the mucous membranes of the mouth and stomach to stimulate digestion. (See Caution, following). Alder decoctions are a good camping remedy for stomach ache. In addition, they are astringent and hemostatic, tightening tissues, stopping discharges, and reducing inflammation. Strong alder decoctions can be sipped in emergencies for internal bleeding, when no doctor is available (though I’d prefer shepherd’s purse or yarrow it present). Some western Indian tribes used to inject alder infusions into the anus for bleeding piles.
Alder’s tonic properties make it helpful for strengthening and toning the whole system. For a more palatable tonic tea, blend with nettle leaves, dandelion, and devil’s club roots.
Use of alder in Alaska is widespread. Lillian Elvsaas says that when growing up in Port Graham she was given ‘alder berry’ tea for diarrhea. This was prepared by boiling 3 or 4 of the green immature female fruits and taking 2 to 3 tablespoons of the decoction a few times a day. A St. Marys resident recommended a similar brew for tuberculosis. In the Kobuk River area, Eskimos apply alder leaves poultices for insect stings and bites.
For a soothing bath for children with measles or adults with rheumatism, prepare alder vinegar bath additive. Follow procedures for Raspberry Vinegar recipe, but substitute one pound bark. Add 1/4 cup (or more if desired) alder vinegar to the bath water.
CAUTION: The fresh inner bark is an emetic, often taken to induce vomiting if a poisonous substance has been ingested. Dry the bark unless you specifically want this action!
Cosmetic Use: Alder leaves are a good ingredient in footbaths for tired and aching feet. I especially like the accompanying herbal blend for a warming foot or body bath after winter sports.
Historical Use: Boiled-in-water bark produces a dye (the color varies with species) that has been used for coloring hair. Dena’ina Athabascan Indians soak animal skins in the boiled bark scrapings; sometimes they rub the wet bark scrapings directly onto the material to be dyed.
An ancient remedy for ridding your house of fleas is to place dew–laden alder leaves on the floor of your home. The fleas are said to be attracted to the moist alder, so one can easily gather up the flea–covered leaves.
Other: Alder chips provide excellent fuel for smoking and flavoring salmon and trout. A fire from green alder, reports Alaska’s Wilderness Medicines, is hot enough for welding. I’ve found thoroughly dried alder among the best firewood available in Alaska.
Alder thrives in poor soil and full sun, and adores freshly bulldozed land. The nitrogen–fixing nodules on alder roots improves soil conditions so that other plants can follow. Spruce, in fact, often springs to life in the moisture and shade of alders. As the conifers grow, they eventually shade out the alders that nurtured them.
On hillsides, alders often cling to the edges of moist ravines; if looking for wilderness water, check near thick alder stands. When climbing or descending steep hills, alders can provide helpful handholds, approach them with a childlike spirit, though, or the tangle of trunks can infuriate you.
1/2 cup alder bark and leaves
1/2 cup devil’s club bark
1/4 cup mustard leaves
1/4 cup wormwood leaves
Place fresh or dried herbs in a cotton or muslin cloth bag. Place herbs and hot water in basin and bathtub. Let herbs steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Insert feet or body. Relax and enjoy!