The tree that’s most captured my attention on recent guided hikes I’ve been doing lately is red alder, Alnus rubra. Alder bark, leaves, and cones are medicinal. Alder has multiple uses, all highly valuable.
It’s detoxifying, both as a blood purifier and a lymphatic cleanser. It’s also astringent and good for supporting absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, according to herbalist Michael Moore. Alder is also used internally as a remedy for tuberculosis and sore throat; externally as a wash for skin infections.
Maybe even more exciting, the southwestern herbalist Kiva Rose writes on her website about using alder with great success against antibiotic-resistant staph infections and externally infused into oils for pain relief. She says the catkins and bark are the most potent parts for pain-relieving. Herbalists from the nineteenth century write about using it for chronic skin infections of various kinds.
Kiva recommends making a tincture after drying the plant matter first, using one part plants to five parts menstruum with 50% alcohol. Other sources write about tincturing the fresh bark in a 1:2 ratio with 50% alcohol. You could also make a decoction, which is like a tea except you bring the plant parts to a boil and in the water and then simmer them for 15 minutes or so. (Decoctions are used for woody plant parts such as bark and roots.)
Alder is in the birch family. You can find alder trees across the country in forests near water. Red alder in particular lives on the West Coast from coastal Alaska to southern California. It prefers disturbed habitat. Look for a deciduous tree with smooth bark that’s often mottled with white patches of lichen. The leaves are alternate, toothed, and the edges are curled under the underside, which is hairy. It’s a pretty straight vertically growing tree, not curvy like dogwood or even cedar occasionally can be.
Bonus trivia: Alder heals the land too. It’s nitrogen-fixing for the soil. And you can use the bark to make an orange-red dye.
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