Today marks the beginning of the third month in the old Celtic Tree Calendar. There’s been a debate over the years as to whether this month belongs to the Alder or the Ash. I go with Irish tradition, placing Alder in the third slot, because it is at this time of year that the Alder’s buds and catkins show brightest, whereas other trees are still slumbering. Ash is much later to leaf and has its rightful place as the fifth tree in the calendar, its dark buds bursting open only in April-May.
The Alder and the Willow are the two trees most closely associated with water, both of them growing right on the banks of streams and rivers. If Willow is the Water Queen, Alder is its King. Its purple buds give it royal status and are brightest between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox.
The Alder is famous for its ability to produce coloured dyes. From its flowers come the greens most associated with elven and faerie garments, from its bark comes bright red and from the young shoots in March come a wonderful auburn-gold.
This is another reason for placing Alder in the third month of the calendar. Its ability to produce differently-coloured dyes links it to the craft of weavers and spinners and the Goddess of both spindle and loom in ancient Britain was Brigid. As we saw last month, Brigid’s tree is the Rowan Tree (rowan wood often being used to make spindles with) so it is right that the Rowan Tree Month is followed by the Alder Tree Month. To compliment this, Irish legend says that the first man was created from Alder, the first woman from Rowan. So, the two months rightly walk hand in hand.
The Alder is unique amongst trees in that it relies on water to disperse its seeds (as opposed to using the wind or birds). It is also the only broadleaved tree to have cones. These grow out on long stalks, which is also unique.
Brehon Law states that those who fell the Alder without permission will be punished by fire, in much the same way as those who build on faerie mounds will be. This tradition is still largely respected in Southern Ireland. Just recently a man decided to build his house on a “fairy fort” (a flat area said to be the home of the Sidhe, who live underground) only for his house to be damaged first by flood and then by fire! So, it pays to take heed of the old lore.
A peculiarity of Alder is that if you strip away its bark you will find an inner white wood which turns red when exposed to the air, which is why it was sometimes called The Bleeding Tree. This association with the colour red linked the Alder with the fires of inspiration, making it the tree of the god Bran, one of the giants of old who was “too big to fit into a house”.
Alder wood was renowned as the best for making whistles and pipes and the music created by them was said to aid divination and clairvoyance. Bran was as an oracular god, one who could see into the future. His totem was the Raven (see my post A Raven Solstice Message), symbol of the Magus or Magician whose primary role was to look into the seeds of time and tell which one will grow and which will not.
Ravens make a lot of sounds that are surprisingly like those made by pipes and whistles. The valley where I live is home to several hundred of these birds, which makes it a special place (it’s more normal to see them only in ones or twos). When they gather to roost in the evening, their calls are much more like the musical notes of (wooden) whistles than the regular “caw” of the crow.
In the Celtic poem The Battle of the Trees, Bran is displaced by the arrival of a goddess, showing the movement in Ireland away from the patriarchal Church back to an earlier Goddess-based worship. And a return to old ways it certainly was. You’ll find out more about this when you read the Tilly Greenway series, because there is an important truth wrapped up in this particular riddle!
Druids valued pipes made of Alder wood highly and used them during healing rituals. Its leaves can certainly be used to ease rheumatism and soothe inflammation of the skin, but I think the main reason it was seen as a healing tree was because it grows on the border between land and water. With its roots often trailing beneath the surface of streams, it acts as a bridge between the seen and the unseen, connecting us with our inner feelings, soothing the whirling thoughts that burn our heads by reconnecting us to the universal spirit.
In today’s busy world, Alder-magic reminds us that it’s when we delve beneath the surface and look to our hearts for guidance that we become stronger, more grounded and more able to deal with the challenges of everyday life. This much-ignored tree is one to seek out next time you visit a river. Sit beneath it a while, set your head against its trunk and listen to the water flowing past. The inspiration of the Water King awaits you!
With best wishes,
PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might like my book Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys, which includes lots of Tree Lore. Find out more at any of these links. Thank you!