Alder trees can grow to a height of twenty metres, they have long dark green leaves that end in an inverted point. The trees have distinct purple leaf buds in spring and equally visible pendulous catkins. The small cones that can be seen on the tree all year round are the fertilised female catkins. Alders are native to Europe and the UK, they grow in damp cool places often near to ponds or lakes. Alder trees have a symbiotic relationship with a species of bacteria (Frankia alni) which gets sugars from the tree and in return the bacterium helps fix nitrogen in the soil providing the tree with a greater ability to photosynthesise. This means that Alder trees can be found in areas with poor soil where other species would struggle to grow.
Alder in Folklore and Mythology
Alder trees are associated with the fairies, this stems from the trees odd properties. The wood will last well in water but quickly rots on land, and the wood when cut turns from white to red. The trees were thought of as gateways to fairy land and in Ireland it is considered unlucky to pass an alder tree during a journey. The Alder tree appears as a totem of the God Bran in the ancient welsh poem ‘The Battle of the Trees’. The leaves of the Alder tree are also surrounded by folk lore, it was thought that the leaves were used by fairies to disguise themselves and hide from humans. A popular folk remedy was to put alder leaves in your shoes to sooth aching feet (we do not recommend trying this)
Alder Trees in George MacDonald’s Fantasy Work
Phantastes is the only fantasy work in which George MacDonald mentions Alder trees. In this tale the Alder features as a significant character, a threatening figure seeing to harm the hero Anodos. He is warned:“shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre — you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair, if you let her near you at night.” This warning has some echoes of the folkloric understanding of the Alder, the appearence of a sentient version of the tree within fairy land, is remenicent of the tree’s association with beleif that the tree can be a gateway to fairyland. The Alder’s attack, by smothering her victim with her hair is a more sinister version of the association of alder leaves with disguising either people or fairies.
This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.
More information about Alder trees can be found through The Woodland Trust
The folklore and mythology associated with the Alder is available through Trees for Life
A full PDF of Phantastes is available here 1894phantastes
An audio book of Phantastes is available here
George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies https://www.abdn.ac.uk/riiss/ The University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk