Features and characters of the individual
Alder trees: facts and stories
Alder trees are closely linked to beliefs in many different cultures. They are a symbol of both life and death. Alongside ash trees, they are often found in marsh landscapes. Long ago, these areas were seen as disturbing passageways between worlds.
In Scandinavian mythology, Embla (the first woman and mother of mankind) was created from a dead alder tree next to the water’s edge. Ask, the first man and father of mankind, was created from an ash tree.
In some Celtic cultures, alder trees are associated with Bran the giant and with immortality. One Welsh myth tells of how Bran connects the worlds of life and death, as he possesses the cauldron of rebirth that has the power to bring the dead back to life.
Did you know?
Alder trees enrich the soil around them. Their roots have a superpower: nitrogen fixation! Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth, and this fixation is achieved thanks to a special symbiotic relationship.
Alder trees have a relationship with microscopic bacteria in the ground. The trees’ root nodules provide a home for these bacteria and serve a place of intense symbiotic interchange: the bacteria take nitrogen from the air circulating in the soil and convert it to a form that can be used by the tree, and in return the tree provides the bacteria with sugars.
Alders aren’t the only trees that do this, but they are the only tree to have nodules as large as lemons! This reciprocal exchange benefits the tree, the bacteria, and also a whole host of other species. A single alder tree can enrich the soil of an entire field.
The benefits of Italian alder trees
Alders are allies when it comes to soil health (see above). Their roots work to stabilise, decompact, aerate, enrich and decontaminate soil. And what’s more: they draw up a lot of water too, so they can help to dry out the soil and reduce flooding.
Alders are also allies when it comes to biodiversity. As the species is quite rare in Brussels, the city’s range of trees is enriched by its presence here. It can serve as shelter and a source of food for all kinds of insects. Flowering very early in spring, the tree feeds the first pollinators of the season. All through winter, the tree’s small seed catkins remain on the branches and act like mini feeders for small birds (passerine birds).
Lastly, alder trees have many natural medicinal and dyeing properties, but these have largely been forgotten.
Alder trees grow quickly and show good resistance to urban pollution. They aren’t fans of drafts or sudden changes in temperature though. Unfortunately, this soil ally is threatened by Phytophthora mould. Since the 1990s when it was first discovered, this mould has been linked to lethal root and collar rot in alder trees.
How to recognise an Italian alder
ovoid woody catkins that look like conifer cones; visible on the tree throughout winter
shiny dark green top sides, paler green undersides; heart-shaped (cordate); rounded teeth at leaf edge (crenate)
green in spring through to autumn; still visible on the tree at the start of winter, but no foliage thereafter (deciduous)
brownish grey, turning blackish grey with age; cracked
Specifics about this tree
This specimen’s silhouette is a landmark on the Ixelles Cemetery’s landscape. Its eye-catching, upright crown is an intense green colour with a compact, conical shape. Standing back where the paths cross, you can look at this tree with its surroundings. The tree overlooks one of the lawns for scattering ashes, with another alder growing further along the same path.
Cemeteries are often planted with yews, weeping willows, ash trees, and sometimes cypresses. Alders are a rare addition. This tree and its neighbour further up the path may well have been planted for their decorative properties, but they might also have a symbolic value as well.
Firstly, the alder tree is a symbol of Ixelles. In the past, in the lower part of the municipality, these trees used to grow in wetland areas (where the Ixelles Ponds and the Flagey neighbourhood are today). The name Ixelles (and Elsene in Flemish) is derived from the phrase ‘alder woods’ in Old Dutch. A stylised representation of this tree appears in the coat of arms for the municipality of Ixelles. So, these particular specimens might have a familiar air for anyone coming to the cemetery from Ixelles.
They also belong to a species that symbolises eternal life. Planted at both ends of the lawn for scattering ashes, they look a little like watchmen guarding the passage of souls.
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive