Lessons from the Alder

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

If the Beaked Haleznut (Corylus cornuta) is the tree that foreshadows spring, the Red Alder (Alnus rubra) is the tree that tells us spring has arrived. The Red Alder is native to the Pacific Northwest. It is a short lived tree, compared to most others, living on average eighty years. The Alder invades disturbed areas, sending their white and grey dappled trunks straight up into the harsh direct sunlight. In the moist temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, the trunks are often filigreed with delicate fingers of moss or are shaggy with licorice ferns.

Male Alder catkins (left) and last year’s female cones (right)

In spring the male and female flowers emerge. The male flowers are pale yellow and dangle in plump catkins from the branches. The female flowers are smaller and more green, eventually turning to dark brown cones and remaining on the tree all winter. The leaves begin to emerge shortly after the flowers, broadly oval and serrated on the edges.

Alder sap is red, giving the tree its name. The sap and other parts of the tree have been used as a dye for centuries by cultures worldwide. The bark is medicinal and can be used to relieve pain and inflammation or to stop diarrhea. It is antibacterial, has been found to contain anti-carcinogenic compounds and was once used extensively to treat tuberculosis.

Alder Grove

This tree is hugely important in healing landscapes disturbed by fire, flood, clear cuts, or storms. Because of its unique biology, it builds nutrient rich soil over the course of its short life. Nitrogen is an element essential for plants to live, and it’s also in limited supply. It is required to make chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that makes them appear green. Without chlorophyll plants can’t perform photosynthesis, the byproduct of which provides both energy in the form of sugar and structure in the form of cellulose. Most of the earth’s nitrogen exists in the atmosphere as dinitrogen gas, an inert form unusable by plants because of its extremely strong triple bond. Luckily, soil bacteria and other soil microbes can perform powerful chemical reactions on atmospheric nitrogen, transforming it into an ionic form readily soluble in water for plants to drink and use. The Alder forms symbiotic relationships with these soil bacteria, who take up residence in their roots. They make nitrogen available to the Alder, and in return the Alder feeds the bacteria with sugar.

In Fall, when the canopies of most other deciduous trees are turning brilliant colors, the Alder’s canopy for the most part remains green. The dramatic show of color we enjoy so much each Fall is due in large part to trees doing the hard work of breaking down chlorophyll and putting nitrogen into storage. The Alder, in contrast, drops its leaves with chlorophyll intact, using the soil itself as the reservoir and trusting in its microbial friendships in the soil to provide the nitrogen the following spring. This points to one of Alder’s lessons: the importance of community and of trust. Building a network of interdependence through community and connection is like weaving a net made of strong rope. If we trust in the integrity of the connections we‘ve made, we can let go into it. Learning to let go and to trust are qualities the Alder can teach us how to cultivate.

Another way that Alder (and other deciduous) trees amend and improve barren and broken soils is by shedding their carbon rich leaves every year. The carbon feeds and supports mycorrhiza (an underground network of mushrooms) required to support a mature and sustainable old growth ecosystem, as well as diverse communities of soil bacteria. The carbon was once carbon dioxide, a common greenhouse gas. The trees incorporated the carbon dioxide into the very structure of their leaves. As the fallen leaves decay and are incorporated into the soil, so too is the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. In fact, creation of healthy soil is one powerful way to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus diminish the effects of global warming.

An Alder growing in waterlogged soil

Alders can often be found growing in wetlands and on river banks with their roots right in the water. This is unusual because normally trees and plants breathe in gaseous oxygen through the roots, which requires a well aerated soil. If there’s too much water in the soil, plants can’t breathe. The Alder can grow happily in boggy, airless soil because it has a mechanism that allows it to breathe through the trunk instead of through the roots. The Adler’s ability to breathe under water makes it a great ally when working through grief or stuck trauma. Water represents what is unconscious in us, including unspent emotion. Through the Alder’s spirit medicine we can remain clear, present and protected as hard emotion moves through us.

Alder saplings require full sun to thrive. This, plus their ability to form symbiotic relationships, is part of what makes them excellent at reclaiming disturbed and abandoned landscapes. In ecology they are referred to as a pioneer species. A mature Alder forest provides protection for shade tolerant saplings of other more long-lived conifers like Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterphylla), Grand Fir (Abies grandis) and others. Because Alder saplings require full sun to survive, a mature and shady Alder grove prevents a second generation of its own offspring from thriving. Instead, Alders are succeeded by the other tree species it has sheltered and protected. The Adler dies and decays at the feet of the giants it has suckled, continuing to feed them and the soil. Working with Alder spirit medicine can be very helpful when some piece of our internal landscape has been abandoned, forgotten or ravaged by a painful relationship. The Alder helps us reclaim ourselves and to prepare the way for a greater more powerful wholeness to emerge.

In the old Celtic tradition, the Alder was characterized as a soldier. Loyal, protective and steadfast. The Alder even bleeds red. Their wood was indestructible when cured and was used for shields and staves. Reclaiming our inner landscape is a spiritual battle, requiring the tenacity and steadfast qualities of the Alder. It’s also important to remember that once the land has been reclaimed, the soil remade, it's time for the Alder to put down the shield and sword. It’s time for the true giants to reign and to create an even more complex web of relationships that make up a mature old growth forest. The Alder teaches us to read the moment, to understand where we are in our process of transformation, and gives us the flexibility to show up and fight or to lay down our swords and enjoy the process of becoming that is well on its way.

If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and walking through a mature forest of conifers, enjoying the giant and stately trunks of Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, and Western Hemlock, take a moment to look down. Admire the soil. The foundation of the forest cathedral upon which you stand may very well have been built by the Alder.

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