Red Alder

Posted by on Nov 4, 2019 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Red Alder

Alder builds strong community. Seeds fly in the wind and rain down on disturbed soils in the wake of fire, landslides or clear cuts. Seedlings grow as much as three feet per year and form lush groves that enrich the soil with nitrogen (an essential plant food) and offer protective shade, making it possible for other plants to grow. Alder medicine also helps our body to reestablish harmony through fighting infection, healing wounded or inflamed tissue and promoting a healthy transfer of nutrients.

Other names: Alnus rubra

Alder Catkins

Identifying Alder:  Red Alder is a common deciduous tree that grows up to 30 meters, or 100 feet tall. Young trees have smooth silvery bark and older tree bark is often patched with white lichen, moss, and dark spots. The inner bark and wood turn deep orange when cut. Leaves are serrated, sharply pointed at both the tip and base, and curl slightly under. They are smooth and dull green on top, slightly hairy underneath, and grow in an alternate orientation on stems. In early spring, male catkins hang from leafless branches like fancy tassels and give the treetops a reddish flush. This is a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. Female catkins grow on the same tree. They are ½-¾ inches in diameter and resemble pinecones that mature from bright green to woody brown. They contain tiny fruit called winged nutlets that are built for wind travel. Both male and female catkins take a full year to develop. Alder is in the Betulaceae (birch) family.

Where it Grows: Alder grows along the Pacific Coast from southeast Alaska to central California, forming lush thickets in wet places along streams, rivers, wetlands, and recently cleared land. It is a pioneering species that takes root in the wake of glaciers, slides, fires, and clear cuts. All types of alder in our region are used for medicine. Sitka alder is a shrubby small tree growing in the mountains while thin leaf alder prefers dry habitats east of the Cascade Mountains. 

Season: Alder leaf buds are harvested in February or March before the leaves emerge. Female catkins can be harvested in the spring through summer when they are fully mature, but not brown and woody. Male catkins can be harvested when they are very small in spring through the following winter before they turn red and release pollen. Leaves are harvested anytime from spring to summer. The bark and twigs are most potent in the spring and fall when sap is flowing. 

How to Harvest: Alder buds, leaves, immature male and female catkins and bark are all used for medicine. For leaf buds, look for recently fallen trees or branches, or trees that have low hanging branches. Mature leaves are simply pulled off the stem when they are still vibrant green. Immature male catkins and female cones are easy to pinch off of branches. If you are harvesting bark from the trunk, only take a narrow strip about the width of your hand so the tree continues to thrive. Separate the red inner bark from the tough outer bark. The inner bark offers the strongest medicine and the outer bark can be composted. You do not need to separate inner and outer bark from the smaller branches or twigs because the bark is so thin. 

Eating Alder: Alder catkins are high in protein and are used as a survival food. Native American and First Nations Peoples historically ate the inner bark of alder in springtime. 

Medicine: Once considered a “trash tree” to the Forest Service, alder is underappreciated and underutilized. Alder tree communities take root in decimated places and reestablish harmony and richness in the landscape. Alder does this for us as well by soothing inflammation, fighting infection, and promoting healing. The bark is most commonly used, but the leaf buds, mature leaves, male catkins, and female green catkins are also medicinal.    

Alder is bitter and supports liver functions, such as the break down of wastes, and formation of bile to assist with fat digestion. Alder bark tincture can be a godsend after you eat a fatty meal and feel like there is a bowling ball in your stomach. You can mix it with other bitter and aromatic plants like orange peel, chamomile and gentian as an apertif. It is also delicious alone. 

Alder is also antimicrobial and is used to treat internal and topical infections. Skin disorders including acne and boils may respond well to both internal and topical use of alder. Its astringent properties make it useful in tightening inflamed tissue. To make a poultice, chew up the plant and place it directly on a wound. You can also gently simmer the leaves in a little bit of water, let them cool, and then place the warm herbs over the area, or saturate a dry wash cloth with the concentrated alder tea and place it over the skin. Herbalist Corinne Boyer makes an alder bud oil infusion for sore muscles. It has a strongly aromatic smell similar to cottonwood, but the buds are smaller and are more work to collect. Skokomish Elder Bruce Miller recommended alder bark tea for mouth ulcerations and sore throats. When I am getting a sore throat, I often gently suck on immature green catkins like lozenges, and they work well for warding off the sickness. 

Traditional technologies: Alder bark makes a beautiful orange dye. It is harvested in spring through summer when the sun is actively shining on the tree at the warmest time of day. Alder wood is used in woodworking to make utensils, carvings, musical instruments and other implements. The wood burns well and is prized for smoking salmon. It is clean burning and non-crackling. 

Alder Nodules

Ecological relationships: Alder twigs are important food for deer, elk, and moose. Small birds eat the seeds and use the trees for cover and nesting. Beavers eat alder bark and use the branches for constructing their dams. Alder shades streams, rivers and ponds, and helps protect fish and other wetland species. 

Alder groves are very efficient at healing damaged land. The Forest Service previously sprayed poison on alder forests, but now recognizes their ecological importance. Alder seeds are light (650,000 per lb.) and can travel by wind to open soil that has been disturbed, such as the sites of clear cuts, fires, and slides. Seedlings may grow three feet in a single year! Bacteria called Actinomycetes (Frankia) take residence on alder roots and stimulate the growth of nodules that can fix nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil in exchange for some of the sugars from alder. This is mutually beneficial partnership between roots and bacteria. Nitrogen is scarce in our Northwest soils and is an essential food for plant health. In addition, alder leaves fall when they are green and decompose rapidly to form rich humus. While alders only live about 100 years, they create fertile conditions for long-lived conifer trees to take root and develop into stable forests. 

Elise Krohn 2016

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