Alder catkins hanging over a brook in winter
Alder catkins hanging over a brook in winter

Alder, Alnus spp

Family: Betulaceae, the Birch Family

Description: Native deciduous shrub, catkins present most of the year, doubly serrate leaf margins. Speckled alder, Alnus incana, has stalked winter buds which are speckled with a fine pubescence while mountain or green alder, Alnus viridis or crispa, has stalk-less (sessile) winter buds with no pubescence—like a bare mountain. The cross-veins that lie between the parallel veins at the leaf underside of speckled alder, A. incana, are conspicuous and extend between those veins, while the cross-veins in mountain/green alder, A. viridis, do not extend all the way between the parallel secondary veins.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Wet areas, wetlands, water borders

Plant Parts Used: Inner and outer bark, leaves

Medicine: Skin problems, blood coagulation

Other: Firewood, biscuit wood, dye

The tannic acid found in the bark, along with the tannins found in oaks and hemlocks, are good for making into a wash for drying out excess moisture in the skin, especially related to fungal problems. The Menominee tribe of the Midwest has also used mountain alder, Alnus viridis ssp. crispa, as a dermatological aid, primarily as an astringent. They treated swellings with a poultice of the inner bark. Both the Menominee and the Secwepemc tribe of western Canada used a wash of the bark for healing sores.

The bark and leaves help coagulate blood. A spit poultice can be made by chewing the bark or leaves and placing that green mash on a cut to stop bleeding. This method is especially effective for stopping bleeding that results from leach bites. Sue finds alder a more successful blood coagulator than yarrow. The Iroquois used speckled alder, Alnus incana ssp. rugosa, to stop internal bleeding by drinking a decoction of the small branches.

Alder can be used as biscuit wood, which is used for attaching two pieces of wood. Alder also makes good firewood because it burns hot. Alder is often used as a red, brown, or yellow dye.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.

References:

  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
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