Sunday, October 04, 2015

Alder Buckthorn / Almindelig Tørst

  Rhamnus frangula


Rhamnus frangula is a bush, rarely a small tree, with a grey brown barch, oval leaves often pretty red in autumn, small whitish flowers which are hard to see, and small stone fruits, which change colour from green to red and black. It is common in light forests, mostly among oak and alder. The whole plant is poisonous. The bush can transfer kronrust, i.e. plant rust to oats. It has often been confused with bird cherry and alder.

Alder Buckthorn is also known as Arrowwood , Berry-bearing Alder, Black Alder, Black Aldertree, Black dogwood, Buckthorn , Glossy buckthorn. In spite of its name it has no thorns. It grows mostly on damp and peaty soil, near bogs, in marshes, damp moorland and open woodland. It may form part of the shrub layer in the Alderwoods of the fens and in open woodland. It is native of Europe, Central West Asia and North Africa.

NB: Barch and berries are poisonous to humans

The buckthorn was of major military importance in the 15th-19th century as its wood provided the best quality charcoal for gunpowder manufacture. Both alder buckthorn and common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) were used in fabrication of gunpowder, especially powder for hunting.

The long twigs were traditionally used to make arrows as well as butchers spikes and skewers. The coppiced branches have also been used for walking sticks as well as pea and bean sticks. Along with willow and split alder they have also found use for cane seating and basket work.



The inner barch dye yellow like saffron, the berries are used for dyeing green in 1686, the barch dyes the wool yellow, the berries dye green, dried barch softened in beech ash lye gives the wool a madder-red colour, green berries make the wool yellow, ripe berries dye greyish, with salpeter blue, with vinegar violet and with bismuth green; if bricks were burnt together with the wood they grow bluish. The barch gives a bronze yellow dye, which after a handling with potash turns into a brick red.

Folk Medicine:
In the Middle Ages a juice was made which could drive out all kinds of bad fluids as well as all other filthiness from the bowels, but since the barch has a very drastic effect (  poisonous) the juice had to be added caraway, anise, cardamom or cinnamon. Juice from the inner yellow barch had a strong laxative effect; the barch cooked with butter or crushed with apples was put on scabies; tea from the innerbarch was used against rash, jaundice and ague(malaria).

The barch was stated in Dansk Farmakopé in 1772, the fresh barch and the fruits were used as an emetic, the dried 'frangulabark' was matured at least one year and was a part of mildly laxative medicines, added malt beer, liqueurs and other dietic drinks.

 NB: The barch and fruit were used as a purgative in the past, though their potentially dangerous violent action and side effects means they are now rarely used.


Bees and butterflies
The flowers are popular with bees and the plant is food plant for the brimstone butterfly.

Other Use: 
The berries were in 1775 mentioned as a means against some horse diseases. The leaves were said to be a good fodder for goats, and if the cows did eat them they gave much milk.(although it is also said that the cattle do not like to eat them because of the thorns). The smell of branches stuck into mole-passages drove away the vermins. The wood was used for inlaid works and shoemaker-pegs, the branches gave a good grip around beer jugs etc. In Vendsyssel (North Jutland) the branches were bound around vessels, and baskets were plaited from the split branches etc. The branches were baked in front of the oven to soften them and then straighten them out into walking sticks. Charcoal from this wood was the best for hunting powder, in 1895 a forest cultivation was recommended for this - from Mårum Skovdistrikt were sold logs and branches for the army's powder work in Frederiksværk.

Text and photo: grethe bachmann
Source: Folk og flora, Dansk Etnobotanik 3, V.J. Brøndegaard 1979.

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