It is finally February, and the earliest signs of spring are beginning to appear, if you know where to look. The alder tree flowers this month, with the male catkins often creating a purple aura around its bare branches. Our beautiful illustrated guide to the history and uses of Scottish plants, Gregory Kenicer’s Scottish Plant Lore, reveals more:
This medium-sized deciduous tree reaches around 20 m tall. The crown often forms a broad column, with a waisted profile. In winter, the tips of the branches are vibrant, giving the plant an aura of hazy purple. The leaves are glossy, inverted-heart shapes with divergent parallel main veins, and up to 15 cm across. Male and female catkins are separate, but on the same tree.
Alder is an immensely versatile tree. The wood has been used for its water resistance in a huge array of tools and construction. Bridges and walkways, piers and pontoons, including those supporting the Iron Age and medieval crannog loch-houses, were all typically made of alder. Alder water-wheels and lock gates were used in milling and transport.
Clogs were almost invariably made of alder; indeed, in the south of Scotland during the early 1900s, ‘Scotch mahogany’ was in such demand for making clogs that birch had to be used instead.
One of the most intriguing uses of alder was to make deep tubs for storing butter, which were sunk into bogs to keep the contents cool. The National Museum of Scotland holds a beautiful example, carved from a single piece of wood that must have come from a prime tree.
Alder produces high-quality charcoal and was used in smelting and in the production of gunpowder. As with birch, it was coppiced to provide shoots for the charcoal industry.
The bark is tannin-rich, so was in high demand for tanning leather and fishing nets, and with copperas (iron sulphate) was made into a black dye somewhat like oak-gall ink. The inner bark produces a red or yellow dye, or with the addition of alum, a gold-yellow dye. In each case, the mixture should not be boiled, or the colour will be less vivid or fix poorly.
The Gaelic ‘fearn’ appears in many place names across Scotland, such as Fearn (Easter Ross), Glen Fearnach (Perthshire) and Caochan Feàrna (near Dalwhinnie). Ardfern and Alltfearna may be the alder-rich parts of Argyll in which Deirdre and the lovers Diarmid and Gráinne are said to have hidden from pursuers in the Irish Fenian cycle of epic tales.
The closeness and density of alder carr woodland has given the tree a sinister reputation. This is heightened by the fact that the wood reddens (as if it contains blood) when cut. This same bloody red is also attributed to God’s curse on alder, as it was allegedly used for making the Crucifix. That said, many other equally innocent tree species have been similarly accused and
cursed for their various strange characteristics.