Alder – Alnus SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Oak-like of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, wadub, alder is a highly astringent edible and medicinal wild plant. Its usage is similar to oak. Alder means red in German, so named because the bark makes your saliva red. But don’t go nibbling on the bark now – it’s emetic (it will make you throw up!)

Speckled alder (alnus rugosa) as listed in Haliburton Flora is the same plant as Grey alder (alnus incana subsp. rugosa), the one common alder you’ll find for Haliburton on iNaturalist. Sometimes it’s called “hazel alder”. I could have titled this piece by our one species, but alders are pretty similar to each other. This shrubby tree from the birch family is spread far and wide along our roads, swamps and water edges. Its cones and catkins are stand out.

Alder - Alnus SPP.
Alder – Alnus SPP.

You might also find black alder here, a European species used in landscaping.

Edible Uses of Alder

The buds and catkins are edible as a survival food, bitter and not very palatable. There are sources that say the inner bark can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried even used as a flour – but maybe nix that raw idea. Fresh green bark is likely to make you throw up. Even in a tea. Safe bet is to dry the bark first in any case.

The wood is fit for smoking meat, especially fish.

Catkins reportedly high in protein.

Medicinal Uses of Alder

Alder is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary

Medicinal tags include Alterative, Astringent, and Emetic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage is similar to oak. It’s all about the tannins. Tannins make parts of these plants “astringent”, which is a handy word for for the action of tightening and toning, drawing cells together. Astringent plants are usually used for skin inflammations, sore throat gargles, diarrhea and upset stomach. Plantain and witch hazel are a couple popular astringents.

Just like with eating, you must dry the bark first if swallowing, or end up vomiting. Otherwise fresh bark and leaves are preferred.

Alternative Uses for King of the Woods

The wood can be used for woodworking or to make a fire with few sparks and little ash.

It’s used to tan leather thanks to the same tannins that make it astringent for herbal usage.

The inner bark makes a yellow dye and is used in mixed recipes for reddish brown and black dyes. The outer bark makes a reddish dye and mixed with inner can get orangey. Boiling produces more brilliant colors. No mordant is needed due to the high tannin content. The European black alder is used for black dye. Alder also dyes human hair, which reminds me of another astringent plant – henna. I’ve only used henna, so I have no experience using alder this way to recommend it, or not.

It’s also a nitrogen fixer. Alder leaves and especially the roots enrich the soil with nutrients, thanks to a bacteria in its roots.

Growing Alnus SPP.

Alder with cones and catkins
Alder with cones and catkins

Grey alder (alnus incana) likes full sun and can tolerate poorer soils. It has wonderful fast growing hedge potential. Some cities plant it under powerlines. Green alder (alnus alnobetula) has some presence here, and is also native to Ontario. There are even more native alders in Ontario, but also some that are invasive. Make sure to avoid the invasive alnus glutinosa if purchasing alders.

If you have European black alder, OIPC has some pamphlets:


The raw green inner bark causes vomiting.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

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