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An Ode to Alder

An Ode to Alder

It has been brought to my attention that there was recently a massive alder kill near Naselle, caused by the application of herbicide to eradicate knotweed near the banks of a stream. To add insult to injury, evidently tansy ragwort, another so-called noxious weed, replaced the some of the knotweed killed in the attack. And most of the knotweed survived.

Now some of you are probably saying “good riddance” to the alders that were sacrificed in the name of invasive species destruction. Alders are considered noxious weeds themselves by many in the area, though they are not on any official lists that would doom them to oblivion. They certainly have some of the characteristics of invasive species, such as the ability to take over a field or garden, but they are native to the Pacific Northwest, so they can’t be invasive, by definition.

My son brought home a red alder (Alnus rubra) sapling 6 years ago that he got at school from Weyerhaeuser. I planted it in our backyard, which I was converting from a lawn with a treed border to a (mostly) native forest. This 10-inch twig is now a 30-foot (give or take a few) tree, dwarfing most of the other trees in the yard.

Not only did this tree grow amazingly fast, but it seems to have spawned a small forest of alders. Now it could be that the younger alders now growing in my yard came from neighboring properties, or just from birds, but I think our original alder is probably the proud mama and papa. So I can vouch for the alder’s ability to grow and spread quickly.

But I don’t have a plan for eradication of my alders.

In fact, I love alders. They seem to me the perfect deciduous tree for the garden. They require almost no care, grow quickly, have beautiful leaves and structure, and most importantly, fix nitrogen in the soil, supplying fertilizer not only to themselves, but to neighboring plants.

A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for alders gave me more reasons to love them. The catkins (fruit) of some alder species are edible (though bitter), and rich in protein. The wood of certain alder species is often used to smoke various food items, especially salmon and other seafood (I still fondly remember eating my son’s catch from a fishing trip some years back after it was prepared by a neighbor and cooked over alder planks).

It turns out most of the pilings that form the foundation of Venice were made from alder trees.

Alder bark contains the anti-inflammatory salicin, which is metabolized into salicylic acid in the body. Native Americans accordingly used red alder bark to treat poison oak, insect bites, and skin irritations. Blackfeet Indians used an infusion made from the bark of red alder to treat lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis. Recent clinical studies have verified that red alder contains betulin and lupeol, compounds shown to be effective against a variety of tumors.

(I particularly like this one.) Electric guitars, most notably the Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster, have been built with alder bodies since the 1950s.

And of course, alder is used in making furniture and cabinets and other woodworking products.

Red alder is harvested in Oregon as a commercial hardwood, and according to the OSU Wood Innovation Center, is about 60% of the hardwood inventory in the state. So others see the value of this amazing tree too.

On my weekday walks to and from work, I get to first pass a lot down the street that is being colonized by alder (with some Scotch broom), and then the woods that line Irving Avenue on the east side of town. These woods seem to be predominantly alder, after logging in the 90s and the recent Great Gale of 2007. You can see conifers growing up in between the alders, biding their time until the fast-growing deciduous trees die off and allow them to dominate once again (if we let them). It’s a beautiful place, born of the landslides of the 1950s, and I hope we have the foresight to let it evolve in peace.

Well, our amazing Indian summer is bound to come to a close sometime soon, and I promised my wife that I will prune the alders in our back yard when their leaves are gone. I won’t have anything big enough for a Stratocaster or a chair, but maybe I can use some of the wood to smoke some salmon. Alder – the gift that keeps on giving!