NATIVE TO THE Northwestern Pacific Rim region of Turtle Island, red alder (Alus rubra) is a healer of the land. A broadleaf tree that loses its leaves in the fall, red alder is the largest alder in North America, typically reaching between 70 and 120 feet in height.
You might think of red alder as a fast-growing scab that forms over the scars of the forest. It sprouts readily in disturbed soils—after a fire, landslide, or logging, for example. Although maligned by the logging industry as a weed, the tree is actually a vital successional ecosystem partner, coming in early to prepare the way for other plants. The roots contain symbiotic bacteria that help enrich the soil so that life can regrow. The seeds are spread widely by wind. As an Indigenous person who occupies the land of the Chinook rather than the land of my own ancestors, I find that connecting with and supporting this tree are ways I can honor the land and its original inhabitants.
Recognizing Red Alder
Red alder looks much like other birches and alders but, true to its name, has red inner bark. You can recognize red alder in the springtime by its dangling male and female catkins, the flower clusters common to the birch (Betulaceae) family that sprout from the previous year’s growth right before new leaves emerge. Male catkins, which grow in the spring, can reach up to five inches long, while female catkins are smaller, growing up to three-quarters of an inch and remaining on the tree through the year. The seeds are food to many woodland creatures, and the bark is home to many mosses and lichens, creating splotches of white.
Communing with Red Alder
Spring, the season of upward and outward movement, is the ideal time to greet and gather red alder. When the sap is running from the roots up through the inner bark to nourish the budding process, you can easily peel the moistened bark from the inner wood. The medicine is in the sap, and you can collect the bark for extraction. There’s no reason to harvest from a standing tree: spring storms often knock down branches—and sometimes entire trees—that you can harvest. Look for branches that still have live buds. As soon as you strip the branch, you’ll see how the inner bark turns red and understand why many of the Indigenous ancestors of the Pacific Northwest—including the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Salish—named it for its red coloring, which is still used as a dye.
With astringent properties, red alder supports the tightening and toning of tissues and helps soothe inflammation. We can work with the dried bark and catkins to make teas and tinctures for internal use and compresses and oils for external use. Taken internally, red alder helps stimulate bile and support digestion through bitter actions. It strengthens immune cells that are within lymph tissue and helps expel waste from lymph nodes, especially when they are enlarged due to immune activity. Used externally, the inner bark alleviates any type of skin irritation or inflammation.
There has been reductionistic, biochemical research on red alder’s chemical compounds like betulin, which has antitumor actions, and hirsutenone, which has inhibitory actions on mast cell activity that comes with allergic outbreaks, such as hay fever and dermatitis. Another chemical compound, platyphyllone, has shown action against influenza. These chemical compounds tend to be valued in pharmaceutical use and research. What is lost with these uses, I believe, are the inherently wise energetics of the tree bark in collaboration with our bodies’ elaborate immune systems.