The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Other English names include: black alder, red alder, and owler. In Danish, its name is synonymous with “elf king” while in German it’s called the Walpurgis tree or Walpurga.
Despite the confusing similarity in names, alders are not the same as elders, although both species of trees have powerful associations with witches and elves.
Alder is a moderately sized tree indigenous to the British Isles and most of Europe, all the way across Russia to Siberia. Alder is also native to the Caucasus, Turkey, and North Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia. It was introduced to the Western Hemisphere during the Colonial Era and is naturalized in eastern Canada and the United States. (Some species of alder are also indigenous to the Andes region.) It is an extremely common tree and is now understood as an ecologically valuable tree because of its ability to improve the fertility of soil by fixing nitrogen from the air, although for centuries alder was a tree of ill repute.
Alder is unique for several reasons:
Alder is renowned for its proclivity for water. Alder thrives in bogs, marshes, and swamps where other trees can’t grow. Alders are allegedly attracted to water, hence the use of its wood for dowsing rods. Because its wood doesn’t rot in water, it was perceived as a particularly powerful and valuable tree. Neolithic houses were built on alder stilts, as are the shacks of swamp witches. The city of Venice was built on alder. Alder loves and is beloved by water spirits and is believed to provide safety to their devotees.
Alder is identified with water and with the color red. Water is the element most associated with magic, with the moon, witchcraft, and feminine power. Red is the color of blood and hence identified with birth (babies arrive amidst blood), death, menstrual mysteries, witchcraft, and women’s power.
Alder “bleeds.” When alder is struck or cut, its pale heart wood gradually turns red. The modern scientific explanation is that this phenomenon is caused by the effects of nitrogen. The obvious nonscientific explanation is that the red color represents blood, although whose and under what circumstances has been subject to interpretation. The initial explanation, based on folklore, herbal, and magical traditions, seems to have been that alder menstruated like a woman, making it a rare, magically powerful and protective tree, and leading to its association with female deities and women’s enchantments.
Later, particularly in Northern lands alder came to be understood as inhabited by spirits. It is the spirits who bleed and mourn (and are angered) when the tree is cut. These spirits include the elven king but especially his daughter.
Alder’s identification with the color red is increased by its annual production of red catkins—so-called because of their perceived resemblance to cats’ tails. (In actuality, these are the tree’s berries.)
Alders represent the goddess or the witch in her guise as hag or crone. The Earth Mother, the Great Mother, both gives birth and accepts the dead back into her womb, her cauldron of regeneration where souls are renewed and born again. The alder shares the essence of the Great Mother who welcomes the dead. It is a tree of death but also of resurrection.
Traditionally witches meet beneath alders. Alders, like elder, contains portals to other realms, such as those of the elves, fairies, and the dead. These thresholds are concealed within the tree but will open to those who know how to find them (and even perhaps, by accident, to innocent bystanders!).
Alder is known as the Walpurgis tree because German witches allegedly ate alder buds during their flight to the Brocken mountain on Walpurgis Night.
Witches used alder branches to stir up and control the weather.
Alder was particularly associated with red-haired witches. Allegedly, alder wood in the hands of a red-headed woman supernaturally boosted her own magic powers.
Italian witches blended alder sap with madder to produce vivid red dyes that were used to color the scarlet ribbons, charm bags, and clothing so prized by Italian witchcraft.
In Italy, alder wood is incorporated into the May Eve bonfires.
In Ireland, the tree was used for divination, especially for diagnosis of the magical or spiritual roots of illness. In Irish tradition, it is forbidden to cut an alder. Many still hesitate today.
Magical flutes, pipes, and whistles were carved from alder. Oracle flutes, instruments of divination, previous to being carved from alder, were formed from the bones of sacrificial victims.
Post-Christianity alder’s reputation grew ominous and negative. The bleeding tree’s magic blood was explained as a reminder of the crucifixion.
Most of alder’s uses were for ritual and magic (and feminine magic at that) and so it wasn’t considered a “practical” botanical. Hildegard of Bingen described it as a “useless tree.” There were a few exceptions: in Scotland, alder was prized for fine furniture. Scottish Bog Alder was also known as “Scottish mahogany” and was considered a luxury wood.
Alder is also a crucial component of many natural dyes. Depending upon the part of the plant, alder is used to make black, green, and red dyes as well as to tan leather.
According to the old medicinal law of similars, like is used to cure like. Just as with the similar-sounding elder, alder, the tree of witch-craft, is used to prevent and ward off witchcraft. Alder’s main medieval uses were to protect against witches and vermin (fleas, lice, and mice; the sticky leaves may catch resident fleas).
A traditional remedy suggests that inner alder bark simmered in wine serves as an antidote against magic potions. On Walpurgis Night, branches of alder were crossed and placed against doors to prevent witches flying overhead from landing and entering. (Although the Walpurgis tree is so identified with witches’ activities on this night, one wonders if this tradition isn’t a distortion of some old witchcraft practice.)
See also Elder; CALENDAR: Walpurgis; PLACES: The Brocken.