Learning from Red Alder
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Learning from Red Alder

Learning from Red Alder

Learning from Red Alder

Red alder leaves

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 catkins

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.


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Medicinal Uses

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.

Learning from Red Alder

This tree has much to teach us through its role in tending disturbed land, giving back again and again through its nitrogen-fixing roots, and doing so all within a short life span—typically a mere 60 to 70 years.

Red alder grows quickly, coming in after a disturbance in the forest and preparing the earth for the longer-living conifers. The roots have a symbiotic relationship with rhizobacteria, a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that captures, or fixes, nitrogen from the atmosphere and makes it available to the tree and surrounding organisms. The bacteria also “digest” nutrients and minerals that are locked in bedrock. This process allows for a rock to slowly disintegrate while it releases more minerals and nutrients that feed the growth of surrounding life. In fact, the red coloration of its sap comes from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. If you look at the root nodules, you’ll notice they appear red. This coloration is caused by leghemoglobin (similar to hemoglobin in blood) that controls oxygen flow to the bacteria. The red alder contains the blood of the forest.

Similar to blood, red alder embodies the two elemental worlds of water and earth. Like earth, it forms boundaries: the astringency from the tannins in the bark tightens and tones anything from skin to digestive and lymphatic tissue. And like water, it supports movement and flow: its bitter properties stimulate bile, helping to release stagnant fluids within the body.

Much is stirred up in me when I sit with the medicine of red alder. To me, everything from that tree speaks of and evokes the element of water. Most commonly, you’ll find red alder wherever there is a river or stream. (Its wood remains durable even under the water, which is why our Indigenous siblings use it for making canoes.)

I see Alnus rubra’s watery affinity in action when it works with our bodies’ inner waters through the lymphatic system. This system of lymph nodes, ducts, and vessels assists with the movement of immune cells, proteins, excess interstitial fluid, and waste. The lymphatic system also absorbs fat and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive system and then moves them back into our circulatory system. This is all to say that red alder acts like the lymphatic system for its ecosystem, supporting the earth as it supports our bodies. It cleans and it heals—with and through water.


This article was adapted from a plant monograph originally published by Lara Pacheco on HerbRally.com.

Medical disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is shared for general information purposes only. Please see our full terms for details. Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before using any herbal treatments.

References

Author’s note: Most of the information from the references below was taken from the Indigenous people of Turtle Island who worked with this tree species intimately.

Deal, Robert L. and Harrington, Constance A., eds. Red Alder: A State of Knowledge. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report (GNW-GTR-669), March 2006. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr669.pdf 

Felter, H.W. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Eclectic Medical Publications, 1922.

Kloos, Scott. Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Timber Press, 2017.

Oregon State University. “Nitrogen-fixing trees ‘eat' rocks, play pivotal role in forest health.” ScienceDaily, 25 February 2019. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190225170247.htm

“Red Alder.” Plants Database, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_alru2.pdf

Sati, Nitin, et al. “Bioactive constituents and medicinal importance of genus Alnus,” Pharmacognosy Review, vol. 5, no. 10, July-Dec. 2011, pp. 174-183. NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263052/

Image credits—Top: iStock.com/MarjanCermelj; side: timisaak

Medical disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is shared for general information purposes only. Please see our full terms for details. Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before using any herbal treatments.

References

Author’s note: Most of the information from the references below was taken from the Indigenous people of Turtle Island who worked with this tree species intimately.

Deal, Robert L. and Harrington, Constance A., eds. Red Alder: A State of Knowledge. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report (GNW-GTR-669), March 2006. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr669.pdf 

Felter, H.W. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Eclectic Medical Publications, 1922.

Kloos, Scott. Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Timber Press, 2017.

Oregon State University. “Nitrogen-fixing trees ‘eat' rocks, play pivotal role in forest health.” ScienceDaily, 25 February 2019. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190225170247.htm

“Red Alder.” Plants Database, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_alru2.pdf

Sati, Nitin, et al. “Bioactive constituents and medicinal importance of genus Alnus,” Pharmacognosy Review, vol. 5, no. 10, July-Dec. 2011, pp. 174-183. NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263052/

Image credits—Top: iStock.com/MarjanCermelj; side: timisaak

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