by Kiva Rose
Common Names: Alder
Botanical Name: Alnus spp.
Energetics: cool, dry
Action: lymphatic, alterative, anti-infective, astringent, blood moving (and pain relieving)
Alder is a primary herb in my practice, and one I would not be without. It is a common riparian tree of southwest North America, and also flourishes throughout the continent, from Mexico to Alaska, West Coast to East. It is steeped in folklore, from the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the mythology of old Europe.
It tends to be a small to medium sized deciduous tree with smooth bark that grows rapidly and has a fairly short life. In some habitat, it will grow in great thickets and provide a great deal of habitat for many wild creatures, including a variety of songbirds, rabbits and especially bears. Other places, such as here, they are less likely to grow in a dense tribe and more likely to be tall graceful trees lining rivers and wet areas. The leaves are broad and oval, rough in texture and a vibrant, bright green. Like its close relative, the Birch, it bears both cones and catkins, the cones are sometimes called berries but really look very much like tiny pine cones, especially after they have aged and turn brown and dry. The Alder is a healing tree for the land, being a nitrogen fixing plant and often a sign of healthy (or healing) wetland habitat.
Our Canyon Alder (Alnus oblongifolia) has beautiful silver bark with an underlying skin of blood red revealed by the scratching of bear claws (who are inordinately fond of this tree). It lives right on the river bank with its roots dangling in a silver web in and just above the water,. And indeed the Alder is a bear medicine. In a literal sense, the bears love this tree -- they climb it, mark it and nibble on it. On another level, Alder (and bears) belongs to the water element, to the deep within where primal transformation takes place.
This tree has always spoken to me of the balance of fire and water, of rebirth and change. My partner Jesse Wolf Hardin wrote eloquently of Alder's mythological and spiritual aspects in his upcoming historical novel, The Medicine Bear:
The alder would have felt special to Omen even if she had never learned any of its story, or learned to read by studying its myths. She loved that it had been long known as the King Of The Fairies, that the faces of the Sacred Kings during the Midsummer rituals were painted with the red dye of its inner bark. That the fairies were said to use the Alder catkins to dye their clothes, thereby making themselves invisible to human eyes. That while its wood burned slow, it nevertheless made the best and hottest charcoal, and had once been the choice of medieval warriors for forging their magically imbued swords. That woodsmen would sometimes strike the silvery barked trees with an axe, and then upon seeing the bright red flesh beneath, be reminded of blood and made too sympathetic to continue an assault. For these reasons and more, the alder was considered to embody the power of fire. And because of the way it turned water into steam, it was called the Tree Of Resurrection by Homer. The alder was the botanical Phoenix, Omen had decided... the leaf-feathered firebird of rebirth.
Personal & Clinical Experience
Alterative & Lymphatic
Having a range of actions extending from alterative to lymphatic to pain reliever/blood mover to astringent to powerful anti-bacterial agent, there's a reason this tree has been considered an overall tonic by many indigenous tribes. When it comes down it though, the medicine is all about the transformation and nourishment of the body's vital fluids, whether through lymph, blood, bile, digestive fluids, urine etc
It's not a yin tonic, it doesn't add to the fluids, nor does it simply move or contain them; rather, it improves/transforms the quality of the fluids. I believe it has something in common with Redroot in this regard but with broader application.
It teams up very well with Oregon Grape Root for constipation (or constipation rotating with diarrhea) with poor protein/fat digestion and accompanying skin disorders. This is usually a pattern of sluggish liver and deficient kidneys that cause the body to fall into in overall sluggish state where the fluids are NOT being transformed and waste is not being removed properly from the body. Alder and Oregon Grape Root will help. If there's significant adrenal involvement, add some Nettles to the picture.
Tommie Bass said:
“If you got any kind of skin condition like eczema or scale, the [alder] tea will help your body heal itself. It cleanses the liver and you know, the liver controls everything else.”
This same pattern of sluggishness leading to inflammation and buildup of waste products also has a tendency to result in chronic infections in the body. The tissues get boggy and soft and can't move wastes out of themselves any more. Time for some Alder! Often Spanish Needles (Bidens spp) is a nice combo here, especially for chronic infections of the mucus membranes.
I want to talk a bit more about Alder's very efficient ability to effect the lymphatic system as well as other systems that enhance elimination. I expect it is this strong alterative capacity that makes it so effective against infections as well.
I've found that small amount of Alder tincture (made from dried bark and cones) to be a powerful yet gentle way to move sluggish lymph indicated by swollen glands, slow healing wounds, chronic sore throat and other typical symptoms. It also has a remarkably quick action on all kinds of skin conditions, from PMS related outbreaks to scaly patches and red rashes. It works especially well with Dandelion for any hot, inflamed skin condition.
I don't have the slightest conception of the biochemical mechanism here, but I do know from repeated experience that it works very well, even in children. I believe Alder contains some amount of methyl salicylate (as does its very close relative the Birch), which could account to its use for sore joints, headaches and other kinds of pain when used externally or internally.
Despite the fact that I work closely with several other well known Alterative/Lymphatic herbs like Violet, Mullein, Burdock and Cleavers I find myself consistently choosing Alder for most situations, especially when I need something to get things moving very quickly. I am of the opinion that it often works even quicker than Redroot (Ceonothus spp) and that they make a superb pair for severe lymphatic congestion.
I recently treated a case in which a five year old girl had a serious immunological reaction to an immunization. The child presented with severely swollen glands (the first guesses at diagnosis were mumps and cancer) and tenderness and pain (to point of not being able to stand being touched). The general physician and hospital doctors after extensive testing were unable to diagnose or treat the issue at all. They suspected cancer but when it was ascertained that this was not the case they informed the mother there was nothing else to be done and sent the child home with pain medication. When I was first consulted, the condition had already been ongoing for over a month with no improvement or change. I gave two formulas, one generally immune modulating primarily containing Elderberry and the other specifically lymph and blood moving that contained only Alder, Beebalm and Ginger, and suggested gentle massage if possible. She was completely better within a week, with no lasting effects whatsoever.
I have also seen protracted durations of flu/cold with immune sluggishness and swollen glands clear up in a matter of a few days with persistent doses of Alder, usually accompanied by a warming circulatory stimulant like Ginger, with or without the addition of the immune modulating Elderberry.
Sources which directly list Alnus species as a glandular or lymphatic remedy include Lyle, Boericke (homeopathic), Ellingwood, King’s American Dispensatory, and is also inferred by Cook and Felter.
TJ Lyle said that:
“The bark is a mildly stimulating and gently astringing tonic alterative, influencing mainly the cutaneous and renal secretions, glands and lymphatics; and is therefore valuable in scrofula, glandular swellings, skin diseases and mercurial cachexia. It is also valuable in chronic diarrhoea, sore mouth, sore throat, especially when arising from some impurity in the blood. In the treatment of dyspepsia it influences the flow of gastric juice and invigorates the appetite. Its action is excellent on the mucous membrane in catarrh of the stomach or bowels. Acting as it does on the circulation it is valuable in rheumatism, and in the treatment of syphilis and in chronic and acute inflammation of the stomach and bowels and in cases of hemorrhages. It is a gentle stimulant of the kidneys and absorbents. ”
and John Scudder said
“It is an agent that has not been much employed by the majority of the profession, and yet those who have used it consider it one of our most efficient alterative agents.”
And he specifically recommends it for scrofula with glandular enlargement.
Alder is historically associated with the treatment of scrofula and syphilis, both diseases that deeply affect and eventually derange the lymphatic system. Alder was considered by many of the older herbalists to be a very effective treatment for the these diseases as well as for glandular swellings and disorder in general. Many more general references to this kind of treatment can also be found in various ethnobotanical texts.
Antimicrobial and Wound Healing
Alder has become one of my most favored and dependable herbs for treating a variety of infections and wound, both internally and externally. I have now treated several cases of moderate to severe cellulitis (including antibiotic resistant staph) with superb results, using Alder as a primary herb (along with Beebalm, Plantain and Rose). You can read more about some of theses cases in the Therapeutics section of the site. And I now consider it a standard treatment in any case of acute infection (and many chronic infections), especially if there is heat and accompanying lymphatic involvement. Modern research has found Alder to be effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as well as other antibiotic resistant bacteria and my clinical experience consistently backs that up. It is my opinion that this is a very important herb in an era of drug-resistant, rapidly replicating bacteria and provides a widespread, common, sustainable and easily accessed/processed medicine.
It has also proved useful in the treatment of venomous insect bites and stings, especially when combined with Plantain and/or Peach (Prunus persica, leaf, twig or flower) including but not limited to bee and wasp stings, spider bites, ant bites, cone nosed kissing beetle bites and scorpion stings. It is most helpful directly after the bite or string has occurred but is still worth using even a period of time afterwards, especially where there might be necrosis or infection due to a spider bite. The tincture is good, though I prefer a poultice of fresh leaves or even bark if it can be had.
I have also used it with repeated success in the treatment of many kinds of toothaches and gum infections. Of course, it can’t address the underlying issues of chronic gum disease (though it does assist in stimulating digestive juices, which can help directly with periodontal disease and related problems) but it will often eliminate the current infection and assist in pain relief. My first experience with this is provided here as an example. I have since had several similar experiences with clients:
Despite repeated attempts with various herbs including Oregon Grape Root, Usnea, Redroot, Balsamroot and Echinacea, I was unable to shake the infection that seemed to just roam throughout my mouth. The herbs managed to keep the pain and swelling in check, but never completely resolved the problem. Strange, as I've treated other toothaches and infections with these same formulas many times before. Nevertheless, it provided a valuable opportunity for exploring new herbs for infection and pain.
With no dentist nearby, I sat down to puzzle about what other local herbs might work. I do have a supply of Goldenseal and few other herbs that were applicable to the situation but I was more interested in trying a local herb that I hadn't yet used in this capacity. Alder, a tree who's name means "Healing Woman" by some indigenous tribes, came to mind as a strong antibacterial alterative with an affinity for the lymph system. Since swollen lymph nodes had been part of the toothache's symptoms I figured this made the Alder especially appropriate. I had a tincture I'd made early this Winter of dried bark, catkins and cones (fresh bark can be emetic). While Alder is often called another simple astringent, some herbalists have found it to be effective against Staph, Pseudomonas and other bacteria. It's also a great allergy preventative, skin healer, general cooling alterative and lymphatic. And it IS astringent, though not as much as say, Dock or Alum root, at least in its tincture form.
So I gave it a shot, taking two dropperfuls 3-4 times a day. And I'll be damned if it didn't decrease the small but steady ache to nothing in three hours, all swelling gone in a day and gum sensitivity disappeared in two days. Seeing how Alder is such a common riparian tree (a far more common plant than Oregon Grape Root) in my canyon home I'm very excited to utilize it more often for various kinds of infection.
It also seems to reduce headache pain, and definitely has a strong effect on the GI system. It tends to be quite cooling and drying and it's emphasis appears to be on moving and balancing fluids through the blood, lymph and immune system. I've found it to work quite well with Sage.
Dr. William Cook said:
The bark is the medicinal part, and is readily acted on by water. It is mildly astringent, and slowly stimulating to the cutaneous and renal secretions. It is good as an alterant in the treatment of scrofula, scrofulous and cachectic ulcers. The profession have by no means given to the article the attention it deserves; but have sent abroad for sarsaparilla, when the despised alder at their door is probably quite as valuable, especially when combined with suitable stimulants. A strong decoction of the article is a useful wash in scrofulous and venereal ulcers, and in chronic ophthalmia; and the same has been used as a popular drink in sub-acute diarrhea, and will be found a good injection in leucorrhea..
In retrospect, I realize that I didn’t need nearly such a large dose. A half dropperful 3-5x/day would have likely been more than sufficient.
Along the same lines, Alder is phenomenal in the treatment of a wide variety of other infections, including sinus infections, yeast infections, UTIs, gut infections and other similar afflictions, especially when combined with Beebalm (Mondarda spp.)
Alder Pain Salve
I first made an oil from dried leaves, bark, catkins and twigs of Alder over a year ago. After reviewing much of the available ethnobotany on this multi-purpose herb I thought it would at least make a nice wound healing salve if not a downright pain relieving one. I also talked to an herbalist from the NW who uses Alder oil extensively in her pain salve, and to another woman in Alaska who uses Alder leaf poultices very successfully in the treatment of her dog's paw cancer.
In the months following I used it every chance I got- on Wolf's fractured toe, on a contusion with popped blood vessels, abundant hard swelling and copious pain, on sore, tight muscles, on general cuts/scratches/wounds and even on a mildly pulled muscle. I have to say it worked great in every situation, speeding healing, reducing swelling and significantly helping with pain. In fact, it works so well I made it a standard ingredient for all my salves. Studies and traditional use indicate the plant is also powerfully anti-fungal.
Specific indications include tension and stuck energy accompanied by acute inflammation and redness. Mixing it with Rose, Cherry or Larrea will further accentuate it's cooling, tension relieving properties. Combined with Pine, Cottonwood or Goldenrod, it is also appropriate for slow healing or old injuries.
Alder and Headaches (a previous personal experience with Alder)
Headaches are a curious ailment, they can stem from nearly any kind of imbalance or disorder, and their symptoms can vary hugely in consistency, symptoms, length and other factors.
I've used it over and over, all different way and it's been remarkably consistent in its usefulness. It doesn't work in every case, but what does? I've used it in toothache caused headaches, tension headaches, hormonal headaches and blood deficiency headaches. Most recently, I had a five day long headache with stabbing pains in both temples and an ache stretching from behind my eyes all the way to my neck and shoulders. Ugh. It was certainly tension related, and probably somewhat hormonal and it was stubborn as all hell. It would let up during a good neck rub, it would even fade for a few hours thanks to my lovely friends, Lavender and Sage, and I could sleep if I took enough Blisswort(Skullcap). I eventually resorted to NSAIDS (that would be Ibuprofen and related pills), which did very little. I was starting to get grouchy, and a little desperate. It's hard to write books and emails while your head is splitting open, and even harder to explain the function of the American government to my seven year old (wait, that's still hard, even without a headache).
Eventually, it occurred to me to try the Alder tincture. 1/3 of a dropper and wow, in ten minutes the headache was gone gone gone. In forty five minutes is was back, I took another 1/3 of a dropper and it left for the night. Not only that but the tension and inflammation in my neck let up, and my neck made the most horrifying sound as I turned my head late yesterday evening, all kinds of crunching and slipping around in there. I felt MUCH better afterwards. And today my head is still happy, though my neck is a bit sore. Alder oil topically seems to be helping.
How does that work, you ask.... I dunno, says the sheepish herbalist. Alder is related to Birch, so there's probably some salicylates involved, but it works better than Cottonwood or Willow in my experience. Alder is also great at moving energy and cooling inflammation in general (by whatever mechanism). I especially love it because it's not overly relaxing, and helps my digestion as well (did I already say that it's very effective for liver headaches, especially combined with Mugwort?). Good stuff, those Alders.
P.S. It's not generally a good idea to suppress pain. Your pain is usually trying to tell you something, like "take a nap", or "stop eating that weird rancid canola oil" or "loosen the hell up". Functioning with suppressed pain can lead to further injury, not a good idea. So be careful, and ask why the pain is happening, before you attempt to get rid of it.
In the Literature (Ethnobotany and other pertaining texts)
It’s quite interesting to note that while many plants have multiple disparate uses by various tribes and peoples that the uses of Alder are fairly consistent wherever it was used. And Alder seems to have been used extensively wherever it grew throughout N. America and probably the world. The most common ethnobotanical medicine uses of Alder bark, catkins or cones include:
Analgesic: used both internally and externally to ease the pain of childbirth, menstruation, toothache, headache, bodyaches, broken bones, intestinal cramping, pulled muscles, wounds, bruises etc
Astringent: to stop hemorrhaging both internally and externally from wounds, TB, kidney infections etc
Anti-infective agent: internally and externally for nearly any kind of suspected infection, including fungal infections such as thrush and vaginal infections. Modern research has found Alder to be effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as well as other antibiotic resistant bacteria. The bark and catkins seems to be the most antibacterial parts of the tree.
General Alterative & Tonic: taken to “improve the blood”, reduce swellings, indigestion, clear the skin of eczema, scabby or pustular afflictions, improve food absorption, appetite, and general health, especially in the Spring. Also used to treat jaundice.
Emmenagogue: To bring on menses or labor, to assist in abortion and to help “clean the uterus” out after childbirth.
Diseases such as TB, Scrofula (now thought to be a manifestation of TB) and many venereal disorders and diseases.
Anti-inflammatory: frequently used as eye wash and for rashes, as well as for lowering fevers.
Urinary troubles: this use probably goes under anti-infective but includes using the plant to encourage urination and for “thick” or “milky” urine.
Diaphoretic: Several tribes indicated they used Alder to induce sweating, though there’s little current indication of this action.
Emetic & laxative
Other notable uses of Alder include carving rattles, spoons, plates, bowls, masks and other items, making cradles, cradleboards, snowshoes, various tools as well as being used very widely as a dye ranging from brown to black to red to orange to yellow for baskets, cloth, hair and much more. It’s also a superior wood for making charcoal or smoking meat, and was used as indicator for drinkable water (“if there’s no Alders, don’t drink the water”).
Modern usage by herbalists as well as extensive scientific testing seems to bear out many of these traditional usages, perhaps especially it’s strong antibacterial, anticancer and antifungal properties.
I haven’t yet noted the diaphoretic or emmenagogue effects of the plant, but will be on the lookout for such actions. I suppose the blood moving (emmenagogue) effects are to be expected from a plant that so excels at relieving pain, and Boericke and Clarke both say that Alder is indicated in amenorrhoea.
What seems most important to note here, is how widely recognized Alder was in the past as a major alterative and an important lymphatic. My practice has reinforced this over and over, and I look forward to continued experience with this wonderful plant.
ln case I needed a little more confirmation of the success of the Alder/Beebalm tincture combo in treating infection, I just got it. I recently gave a bottle to a client with a mild sinus infection and she was quite happy when it cleared up in a few days. She then passed it on to a friend with a tooth infection, which it also cleared up in a few days. She in turn, passed it off to her teenage daughter, who had a persistent sinus infection, and again, all was better in a few days. I've also seen it recently clear up some incredibly persistent infections of all sorts, from UTIs to cellulitis to infected wounds to a bad gut infection. I know I go on (and on) about this, but it's rather rare that any works so consistently for infections like this. I don't know that it will work on everything, I just know that it's worked on every single infection I've tried it on so far. I've had far more bacterial infection cases than fungal infections though, and I'm interested to see how it will work there.
I'm mostly using a 50/50 mix of fresh Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa var. menthaefolia) flower with freshly dried Alder (Alnus oblongifolia) twigs, catkins and cones. If there's a case where constitutional coldness is a big factor, I add in some Yerba Mansa, Ginger or Garlic. If there's excessive heat, then maybe Honeysuckle flowers. If the lymph is super congested then I'll try some Redroot or perhaps a tiny bit of Poke, though Alder is enough of a lymphatic to do an impressive job on its own in many cases. Anyhow, you get the idea - take the basic formula and adjust as needed. And sometimes I just use the Alder or Beebalm by itself depending on the situation (yeast infections and acute UTIs for example, will often respond to Beebalm alone). I am not in any way advocating the approach of "this herb for that disease" in general, but I am suggesting that my experience indicates that these two herbs provide an excellent starting point for both chronic and acute infections.
These two herbs also form 2/3 of the basis of one of my most dependable salve recipes, a simple combo of Beebalm leaves, Alder leaves and Mugwort leaves warm infused into the organic leaf lard. Good stuff, takes and redness and ouch out of most cuts and abrasions. Beebalm tincture or tea is also a GREAT burn treatment (better than Lavender in most cases, really, it is). Alder leaves are a potent treatment for many bites and stings of many venomous insects. Magic plants, these two. I don't leave home without them.
I use a tincture made of recently dried bark, dried green cones and fresh catkins. I make a 1:5 tincture with fifty percent alcohol. The tincture is red, brilliant but not as dark as St John’s Wort and more transparent. The tincture smells pleasant, and actually tastes quite good -- sweet, moderately astringent and slightly bitter.
I’ve been using Alder (Alnus spp.) tincture quite regularly as a lymphatic, pain reliever, anti-infective and alterative for a while now, and I’ve always been pleased with how gentle it is on the system, surprisingly good for the gut considering the tannin content and even nice tasting. I was unpleasantly surprised then, when I tried using the decoction for an infection. Those tannins really came out in the water-based brew and it was nearly enough to twist my tongue and intestines into one dry, puckered knot. Ugh. It was like black tea on crack, seriously.
So, for long term use, as a lymphatic or anti-infective I’d definitely recommend the tincture, but if you’ve got a bad case of the runs, are hemorrhaging or have a bit of organ prolapse it could be very useful. No wonder the natives used it for internal bleeding, that stuff could stop a cannonball from loosing even the littlest bit of fluid from a body. If you do use it for its astringent properties remember that tannins can inhibit digestive functions and shouldn’t be used in a strong form over an extended period of time. If you want a gentle, long term astringent try Raspberry leaf or Rose petals and save the Alder cones or bark for a more acute need.
On the other hand, Alder decoction mixed with Rose vinegar is just phenomenal on sunburns. And in the Southwest, that’s a very exciting thing to know.
Tincture: 10-60 drops, 3-6x/day or as needed until resolution of issue. When working with acute infections, it is often necessary to take a medium to high dose every couple of hours until the symptoms start to recede, and then back off the dose a bit. External use can be used as needed.
Cautions and Contradictions:
Water based preparations tend to be very astringent, making them less than ideal for long term internal use as they will impair digestion sooner or later. Also, this is cooling, drying herb so be sure to use it where it is appropriate and called for, as it could (like all other of this temperament) aggravate an already cool, dry constitution. When dealing with a cool, dry person with a hot or hot, moist condition use it (internally) moderately or moderate it in an appropriate formula. In general though, this is a safe, gentle herb and can be used safely in small children.