Close encounters with an Alder

Sometimes it pays to know your trees:

The view from the 6,000 foot summit of Mt. Pearkes was stupendous. Across the peak we watched a family of mountain goats pick their way down a stoney ridge. We also watched warily for brown bears. Stretching out to the horizon on all sides lay the vast array of peaks that comprise BC’s coastal range – all drenched in the orange glow of the setting sun. It was a unique moment as the two friends were awestruck by the immensity of it all.

But in the next instant, a tongue of cold air snaked up from the the rising shadows to remind us of our precarious position. Our canoe and camp lay 6,000 feet below us, at sea level and we had taken all day to crest the mountain. No problem, we thought – being inexperienced with crossing clearcuts. From above the massive clear cut a swatch across the ocean-facing flank of the mountain looked passable. Accompanied by my two terriers,  we flung ourselves down into the morass of debris and piles of branches. With the light fading we quickly descended into a shadowy hell, interspersed by hard-to-spot precipices, huge logs scattered at all angles and gigantic bramble patches. The going was not just tough, it was nearly impenetrable.

And below us, a huge cliff that fell directly into the sea marked the final thousand feet of mountainside. The only way off the mountain traversed the hillside just above the cliff, an old logging road thickly overgrown with alders.

With thirty minutes of plunging down the slope, we were immersed in darkness, as trees and rocks become indistinct shadows, and we could no longer see where our next steps led. But for several more invisible hours we stumbled on, blindly following the sound of our dogs scrambling down, and occasionally dropping off a precipice into the debris collected below. As the darkened sky merged with the forest gloom, I struggled to keep my grasp of the contours underfoot so that I might not miss the narrow ledge that ran along the top of the cliff. My only clue that we had successfully reached the logging road would be the presence of the alder trees that had overgrown the roadbed.

To this day, I can remember the triumph of leaning close to the invisible trunks, and using a cigarette lighter to illuminate a tiny section of the bark, where I recognized the mottled bark with it’s telltale greyish-white mold. There in the tiny circle of light, I can still see the grey Rorschach pattern etched into the bark, and then the relief as I saw jagged edges of its leaves.

We collapsed into a hollow in the road and covered ourselves in a heap of leaves. Clinging together spoon-style and holding the dogs close we slept the sleep of the dead. Around 2 AM we rose and boiled some tea from a small fire we had kindled. It was broad daylight when we woke again and descended blearily into our abandoned camp with its overturned canoe and cold campfire.

Trash tree? Hardly!

For years the humble alder, has been considered a weed by the timber industry. But recently, it has undergone a transformation into a valuable contributor to the health of the  sylvan culture. The alder is renowned for sprouting quickly and grasping its way into any clearing in the wake of loggers or sliding slopes. The coast range is heavily accented with groves of alders sweeping across it’s scarred slopes, filling the chutes of flooded creeks, dominating the constantly shifting river bottoms and demarcating the long abandoned skidder tracks of bygone logging. This aggressive tree spreads its roots into the sifting soils anchoring itself as the tree grows. It is the first to move into the recently vacated neighborhood, and for up to forty years it will grow to the height of a three story building before toppling over ignominiously as it suffocates in the nitrogen it has released into the soil.

The alder is the “cinderella” tree, so long undervalued and now recognized as one of the most important building blocks in a healthy forest stand. Not only that, but the alder demonstrates how our forests are complex arrangements involving many diverse contributors such as rodents, birds, insects, fungi and even molds. In this case, the Actinomycete mold grows on the surface of the alder giving it its distinctive mottled character, but more to the point the alder pulls nitrogen from the air and turning it into food for the Actinomycete mold which stores the nitrogen in nodules on the alder roots. The mycorrhizal fungus that permeates the soil then cozies up to the alder’s roots effectively amplifying the tree’s ability to extract nutrients while at the same time spreading the nitrogen in a wide area around the base of tree. Later, when the alder sheds its leaves it saturates the soil. A healthy stand of alders has been known to deposit between 120 and 290 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This symbiotic cooperation between the mold, the tree and the mycorrhizal fungus allows the alder to colonize soil that is unable to sustain any other trees.

But this nuanced alliance has further benefits. Not only is the mycorrhizal fungus enhanced as it spreads its beneficial network under the forest floor, but it also accelerates the alders’ absorption of phosphorus from the soil – so thoroughly that it prevents further alders from sprouting on the same spot. In other words, the alder has built in “term limits” that prevent other alders from succeeding it. Conifers don’t need the missing phosphorus, but are attracted by the nitrogen trove the alders have left behind. Since, the alders can no longer dominate in that location their eventual die-off leaves room for the conifers to succeed in their quest for light and growth.

From canoe bailing scoop to side dish for boiled worms

When considered beyond the narrow measure of its commercial value, the alder begins to shine. In forest fires, the moist alder groves form natural firebreaks, and over time the muddy soil conditions in these groves heal the linear scars left behind by mankind. Early in the spring, it’s the bears that break their winter fast on the soft bark of young alder trees. Not much later it’s the deer that use the supple alder limbs to scrape the fuzz off their growing antlers. And during the later months of the year, these green shady groves offer refuge to the deer and elk as they avoid exposure to the August heat and then the September arrival of the bow-hunters. In addition, alder groves provide some of the best habitat for nearly two hundred species, for whom the green tangles of thickly crowded alders serves as their home and refuge.

And it’s not just the animals that valued the humble alder.  The Indians make good use of the alders’ unique properties. Noticing the reddish colors in its bark the Kootenai, and Nez Perce extracted red, orange and brown dyes from the bark. The Flatheads of northern Idaho even used its bark to color their hair a flaming red; the tannins in the bark serving to set the color.  Many of the tribes used alder to smoke and flavor their fish. It was a favorite for making utensils, especially vessels for serving oolichan, the thick grease produced from the oily candle-fish. On the Lower Columbia, the Cowlitz used the alder as an analgesic, spreading a paste of rotten alder wood on their bodies to ease their aches and pains. The Makah favored alder wood for making paddles and cradles. But the most common use throughout the region was to apply the alder’s reddish dye to camouflage their fishing nets.

Alders produce both male and female catkins on the same tree. In early spring, before the leaves are even fully developed, the red alders (Alnus rubra) are awash with bright yellow male catkins. These male catkins are edible to humans, and are said to be very high in proteins. But they should be harvested quickly, because unlike the female catkins they disintegrate once they’ve flowered. The female catkins look like tiny pine cones and they remain on the tree year-round. The Clallam Indians ate the male flowers to relieve stomach ailments, and they chewed the female fruit for “sores”. Alders are also said to be beneficial to mushroom culture and they are the natural host of the Oyster mushroom, a commonplace and savory Pacific Northwest mushroom.

One noted expert on edible plants had this interesting culinary recommendation to share, although I’m less enthusiastic about his fondness for boiled worms:

“Along with a slightly nutty taste from the yellow, powdery pollen, the (male) catkin structure itself was crunchy and pleasing, if not a little bitter…I find (male) alder catkins to be a refreshingly seasonal dietary addition, especially when boiled (I liken the taste to corn and potatoes) seasoned with western coltsfoot ash-salt or added raw to boiled worms. Boiled alder seedlings have also proven to be meal-worthy.” – Storm

But with the development of the timber industry, with its laser focus on the highest value trees, the alder was soon neglected. For much of the past century the alder has been considered a “trash tree” and has been the object of widespread efforts to extirpate it from the timber companies’ lands. But in recent times, our increased understanding of the forest ecology has led to a renaissance for this humble tree. Not only do we now recognize that alder makes great firewood, but its consistent color from heart to edge makes it ideal for furniture production. Today, timber companies have an renewed appreciation for this humble tree not simply for its keystone role in balancing the nutritional needs of the forest, but also due it’s growing popularity as a malleable “hardwood” that can be grown quickly, or as a supplemental timber harvest when soil productivity requires an alternate “fallow” crop to regenerate its nutritional capacity.

Our commercial bias:

But perhaps the greatest lesson in this somewhat-less-than-epic peaen to the ordinary alder tree, is the realization of how we play favorites in our judgement of the plants and animals we encounter based on their presumed commercial value. Thus, it is that the Pacific Northwest’s signature tree is the Douglas Fir, and not the motley alder even though both are equally populous in our forests, and apparently of equal value when viewed from a more holistic forest perspective.




About Jim

Love to spend time getting lost in the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest with Zoe, my Siberian Husky.
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One Response to Close encounters with an Alder

  1. Estella says:

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    this blog.

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