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Tree 18: Italian Alder

Latin name: Alnus cordata
Family: Betulaceae
Origin: Southern Italy, Corsica
Height: about 16 metres after 20 years
Lifespan: about 60 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

A handsome, fast-growing large tree, sometimes seen in parks and gardens, the Italian Alder is often regarded as the finest of the species. It has an attractive conical shape which, in the case of our tree, is perhaps best seen across the lower pond from the driveway. Our tree is also very impressive if you look up from its base.

The Italian Alder has dark green glossy leaves which are heart-shaped with a pointed end, unlike those of the Common Alder which have blunt indented ends. It thrives on poor compact soils, copes well with pollution in towns and is tolerant of windy sites, making it a good specimen tree for parks and woodland.

The male catkins are long yellow/brown and appear before the leaves. The female catkins are green and gradually become woody and appear as tiny, cone-like fruits in winter. They are a good source of food for birds.

The bark is smooth and grey or white, but changes to orange when cut. It produces a strong orange-red coloured dye that is used by spinners and weavers. The bark has also been used to treat inflammation, rheumatism and diarrhoea while alder oil has been used for treating painful joints. The tree is said to support and protect and it is regarded as a symbol of strength and courage.

Alder trees were sacred to the druids, who made whistles from the wood, giving rise to the phrase ‘whistling up the wind’. They are associated with weapons, arrows and shields, and the wisdom of fighting.

As is the case with other alders, the timber of the Italian alder is extremely resistant to water and is used for turning and carving and for the production of furniture, panelling and plywood. It is durable in water, but breaks down rapidly when exposed to air. Alder was used by ancient people to support walkways, bridges and round houses in boggy ground. Parts of Venice and many medieval cathedrals were built on alder foundations though this was probably common alder, Venice being beyond the native range of the Italian alder.

The song of the Alder fairy:

By the lake or river-side
Where the Alders dwell,
In the Autumn may be spied
Baby catkins; cones beside —
Old and new as well.
Seasons come and seasons go;
That’s the tale they tell!