From Whence Our Name?

Alderford is the name of our shire in Stark, Carroll, and Tuscarawas Counties in northeastern Ohio. The local area is known for its many streams and lowlands. In central Stark County, a tributary of the Tuscarawas River, Nimishillen Creek, has its headwaters in four streams. The name for this creek comes from the language of the original natives of this region. Nimishilla is the name of a shrub that the first European settlers called black alder. The plant grows in wet areas and along stream banks. The ni prefix had an association with water and streams. Nimishillen, as a proper name, has descended the creek reference and is, for example, the name of the township located centrally in terms of the Marche’s membership.

alder leaf
The black alder plant name is somewhat of a misnomer. There is a European tree with the same name. The European tree and the local shrub have the same common name due to a certain characteristic of their fall foliage: both plants berries turn black after autumn frost. The resemblance ends there. The European black alder is not indigenous to North America. The tree grows ninety feet tall; the shrub grows only a fraction of that height.

Another local name for black alder is winterberry. That name has another origin, that is, the plant’s distinctive berries that last throughout the winter. The berries are scarlet and are sometimes picked for use in Yule decorations.

The North American shrub is known correctly as Ilex verticillata. It is widespread, growing from the east coast to the Mississippi River in the United States. It seems to have been especially prevalent in our area. Black alder grows 3 feet to 15 feet (1 to 5 meters) tall. Its simple, alternate leaves are dull on top with coarse teeth and variously hairy on bottom. The leaves turn black after frost. The bright, round, red berries (1/4 inch [6 cm] diameter) persist after the leaves fall off. Varieties can be distinguished by the number of berries they have. Some are quite prolific; others have only small clusters at the junctures of leaf and branch.

The bush does not grow large enough to be used for lumber; in fact it is seldom even used for firewood.

Black alder berries are not significant in the diet of mammals, although birds will eat the long lasting berries. It is telling that birds only eat the berries in late winter or early spring when food is scarce. Robins, catbirds and bluebirds are birds that winter locally and eat winterberries.

Herbalists list the use of black alder as an emetic and cathartic, that is, it will make you ill.

Alderford as a name recognizes the nature of the local terrain and how the medieval traveler would have perceived such an area. The berries and blackening leaves are the only truly significant aspects of black alder. They are memorable enough, though, to have served as descriptive markers. To cross this region east or west, at least four streams identified with the presence of the black alder shrub would need to be forded — hence our name.

Copyright © 1995 by Lord Malachi (mka Mike Rembert). Reprinted by permission.