March’s Tree of the Month: Red Alder

red alder leaf
The leaves do not turn color in the autumn, but fall green and turn black on the ground.

Red alders (Alnus rubra) are truly a forest lifeline. Like first responders arriving early on scene after a disaster, red alders emerge in areas where forest was taken out by fire, clearcut, windstorm or other disturbance.  In forestry lingo, they are a pioneer species in the early successional stage of forest recovery.

During their lifespan (approx. 50 years) and even in death, red alders convert nitrogen into nitrites and nitrates that other forest plants can readily absorb.  Nitrogen is a must-have for plant growth. Thus, they are key for healthy forests. Red alders grow fast but are short lived compared to the conifers they nurture, living about 50 years or so.

alder tree trunk showing bark
Alder tree trunk showing typical grey bark with lighter lichen patches

Sun-loving alders establish themselves in disturbed areas without forest canopy. Often they’ll cluster together along streambanks, floodplains, logging roads and other moist areas. Red alders are deciduous, hardwood trees recognizable by their grey bark covered in patches of white lichen.

Red alder logs
Red alder “bleeds” red when it is cut, hence the name.

Native uses include dye, bowls, masks, rattles, and planks for smoking fish. Alder is used for furniture, cabinetry, and paper.  It is an efficient heat source, burning hot and long.  Red alder provides habitat for deer, birds and beaver.

This short YouTube packs in more information about the amazing red alder:

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